The Faster Horse is an exclusive work of fiction commissioned by Motor1.com, written by David Erik Nelson, and illustrated by Jesse Thomas Glenn. A new chapter of this four-part series will be published every Tuesday for a month.
"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, 'Faster horses!'"
—attributed to Henry Ford
"It was the worst train wreck I've ever seen," Cynth told the bartender, Vince, as he set down her beer and nonchalantly scooped up the dollar tip she'd laid down. Cynthia immediately took a slug.
"So they won't air it?" Vince asked, wiping down the bar.
"Pfff! You bet your ass they'll air it next season. If they can."
Cynthia had only been working as a production assistant on Shark Tank – that reality show where people pitch their businesses to high-rolling investors – for a couple weeks. But that was a couple weeks on top of years spent as an office, set, or location PA on a diverse array of third-string reality shows. Usually, if Cynthia called something a "train wreck," it was with a twinkle and a smile, the set-up to an over-the-top rant about this producer's trophy wife – "young enough to be a trophy daughter" – or some dipshit film-school kid who thought he was the next Tarantino but didn't have the sense to make sure everything was locked up before echoing "Roll!"
No twinkle here, though. Just a frown, a big gulp of beer, and the empty held aloft for a re-up. Vince obliged; Cynthia was a reliable tipper, and he had two part-time jobs and a goddamn horse to feed.
"This one started OK," Cynthia said. "Heck, it started great: Handsome guy, pitch polished without seeming over-practiced. Strode out those double doors to center stage, hit his mark, and asked a question. Brass balls. No small talk, no introduction, not a drop of sweat on his brow; just this single question..."
"How did you get here today?"
The five Sharks sat in their deep faux-leather chairs, leaning forward a little, expectant. They thought the question was rhetorical. But it wasn't, and the entrepreneur – a slim, intense man, eyes shrewdly a-sparkle beneath a wave of dark hair – repeated himself, this time directing the question to the steeliest Shark of them all, Kevin O'Leary: "Mr. Wonderful: How did you get to the studio this morning?"
The round little man smiled with his mouth, but remained dubious around the eyes. "I rode, of course."
"Of course. A bicycle?"
"No," Mr. Wonderful smirked sidelong at Mark Cuban, an avid cyclist, "I'm not that kind of guy. I rode Dusty J."
"Dusty J. A horse?"
"Of course, of course. A little guy, my runabout: A 15-hander."
The slim man's eyebrows shot up, "A 15-hander? That is a little guy! He's not even as tall as me at the withers!"
Mr. Wonderful smiled affectionately, clearly thinking about Dusty J.
"You take him on the highway?"
The smile died quizzically.
"No, of course not," Mr. Wonderful replied. "Dusty's a standardbred trotter; he tops out at 35, 40 miles per hour. In L.A. traffic, he hardly gets near that, hardly breaks a sweat most days. But he's no highway horse."
In the dark wings Cynthia was crouched over an apple box, trying to sort out a rat's nest of cables. She was only half-listening, but at the phrase "highway horse" her heart jumped. Highway horses were her last remaining trigger, and her therapist had been emphatic: Engage with the trigger. Breathe through it. Don't draw away, don't hide. Panic attacks are not an existential threat.
Cynthia stood up in the dark, breathed in on a four count, held it, breathed out on a four count, and focused on the Right Now: the set, the Sharks, the entrepreneur making his pitch.
"So, then," the intense little entrepreneur said, "you also have a highway horse? You're a multi-horse household?"
"Yeees," Mr. Wonderful said carefully, "But, you know, I try to avoid highway travel."
The entrepreneur feigned incomprehension. "Really? Why would that be?"
Mr. Wonderful shrugged and looked around at the other Sharks. "Same reasons as everyone else, I assume: It's stressful."
The slim man smiled now in earnest. "But most Americans don't avoid highway travel – most Americans can't avoid highway travel: 68 percent are on the highway for at least 90 minutes per day, round trip."
This clearly gave the Shark's pause – Cynthia imagined that they rarely reflected on how the Other Half lived.
"Ninety minutes each day," the slight man said reflectively, "45 at a time, perched up on the backs of highway horses – seven feet tall at the withers, galloping 70 or 80 miles per hour."
Cynthia blew out another measured breath. This was going to be as bad as she feared. Cynth had spent a lot of time on the highway when she'd first come to Los Angeles; she'd been a highway EMT for three years. Absolutely no one in Cynthia's current circle of friends knew this. These days Cynthia avoided the highway at all costs. If she couldn't get there by steam train or horse-bus, she just didn't go. Highway horses terrified her. Highway horses were objectively terrifying, she'd learned.
Cynth took another deep breath.
Finally, the slim man turned and pulled the top blank card from his easel, revealing a heat map of the United States, dark purple around the affluent urban centers – Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles – quickly dimming to washed out pinks, and even white. "This chart shows the concentration of horses per household. The darkest areas are mostly two- and three-horse households, while the lighter – well, roughly half of all American households have one horse or fewer. And those single-horse families, they almost always have to go with a highway horse, because of their commutes. And a highway horse is expensive – even just standing in your yard idle, he'll eat around $500 in feed and hay each and every – "
Lori Greiner – the "Queen of QVC" – pushed back a lock of blonde hair. "I'm sorry – " she glanced down at her notepad, paused, then began again: "I'm sorry, but you never even introduced yourself."
The slim man smiled. "Yes, all apologies: I'm William Firestone Ford. Billy."
Billy Ford. Eyebrows were raised.
The Queen of QVC settled back, resting her elbows on the chair. "Billy, I'm sorry to interrupt your horse talk with Mr. Wonderful, but what's your product?"
Billy Ford, unruffled, pulled away his map and let the paper see-saw to the floor. The next image was… something. Something Lori couldn't immediately identify. It was boxy and enclosed – Lori would never have said this with the cameras rolling, but she thought it looked like a couple of those wheelchair-accessible port-a-potties strapped together.
But with windows. And on wheels.
Mr. Wonderful squinted, "Is that a carriage? Where are the shafts and traces?"
Mark Cuban – silent to this point – flopped back in his chair: "I'm out!"
For the first time Mr. Billy Firestone Ford looked nervous. "Wait, let me – "
"No," Mark said flatly. "No. What even is this? A porta-john on wheels? He can't be serious. It looks awful. He's only here for exposure." Mark was getting lathered. "This guy is just an anti-horse nut, and this is just a BS publicity stunt for whatever his political agenda is."
"Mark, Mark," Mr. Wonderful was holding up his pen shushingly, "I'm interested, I want to hear – "
"Look, Kevin, I get the kid's basic schtick – it's in the news every night: Feed prices are crushing people, really stifling innovation. Americans have long commutes and can hardly afford the horses they need to make them. That's a real problem, a real opportunity. How the hell is that solved by some godawful ugly contraption that would need at least, at least, a twenty-horse team to drag it up to highway speeds?"
Billy began, "It doesn't need a twenty-horse team – "
"Hold on, Mark," Mr. Wonderful soothed. "Looks like mostly plastic construction; maybe it's very light, very inexpensive. Highway speeds, but multiple passengers. That could go a long way toward relieving the crunch for a lot of people."
"So what's this thing cost?" Mark challenged. "If cost is the pain point, then low-cost has to be in the solution. What's the cost to consumer?"
Dead silence on the set. Mark Cuban was literally agog. This was good – plenty of time to get reaction shots of everyone to be edited together later – but it quickly went from dramatic to awkward to excruciating. Mark Cuban wasn't just frustrated now; he was red-faced, absolutely apoplectic:
"Most Americans – most of these one-horsers you're talking about – don't even have $500 in their savings account to cover an emergency visit to the large-animal vet. But you come in here with this weird, ugly, totally impractical horse cart – " he threw up his hands. "You could buy three, four decent horses for that kind of money! They'll be paying it down until the day they die!"
"This is not a horse cart." Billy Firestone Ford said evenly. "It's a self-propelled personal motor carriage."
Part 2 – Fuel
(Click here to start from the beginning)
As Billy Ford continued his pitch, Cynthia, still standing in the studio wings, succeeded in reining in her racing heart. But her thoughts remained stuck on her old job working as a highway EMT. Back then she'd spent her days sitting in the relentless L.A. sun astride one of several pretty good-natured standardbreds the company owned, patrolling the stubbly median between the dirt highway track of the 405 and the bulk service drive reserved for the large, slow traffic: kid hacks, buckboards, family buggies, and caryalls, as well as lumbering steam buses and big rigs.
On the one hand, the job was moderately miserable: between the locomotive smoke and choking highway dust, she could choose between hacking and coughing up tawny mud snot at the end of each day, or getting a rash from the rubber gasket around the edge of her cheap hardware-store breathing mask. By the end of the day, she was half-deaf from the roar of steam engines on one side, the ceaseless trip-hammer pound of hooves on the other, and the max-volume radio chatter from the walkie-talkie earpiece.
On the other hand, she'd grown up barrel racing in Nebraska, it was cool to live in Hollywood, and she loved horses.
Still, she saw a lot of scary shit on the highway. And then, one day, she saw too much.
Back in the studio, Mark Cuban was fuming in his faux leather chair, but the other Sharks had perked up at the notion of a personal self-propelled vehicle. Barbara Corcoran – usually not a gadget person; she'd made her nut in real estate – cocked her head like a small bird spotting a fat worm. Robert Herjavec – who was a techie, not to mention being wild for horses and carriages alike; just that afternoon Cynth had seen him whip into the lot in a gorgeously lacquered Scuderia Ferrari phaéton – stitched his brows quizzically.
"This is some sort of ultralight passenger-driven brougham?" Robert hazarded.
"No," Billy Ford said. "No horse at all; it is entirely self-propelled."
Both Mr. Wonderful and Lori "Queen of QVC" Greiner were clearly getting close to biting the hook.
"So some sort of miniaturized steam lorry?" Robert Herjavec asked.
"Nope," Mr. Wonderful said. "Can't be. Steamers are way too heavy and slow for a commute, and waaay too thermally inefficient to be practical for the average consumer."
"Indeed," Billy nodded. "Also that would be an external combustion engine. While one could be made small enough to power a personal vehicle, that poses some rather grave operational and safety concerns in the hands of average consumers; this vehicle relies on internal combustion."
"Like they use on big ocean freighters and in power plants?" Mr. Wonderful asked. Billy Ford nodded. "Impossible!" he gasped. Ford shook his head with a smile.
"This is a concept rendering?" Barbra asked, indicating the picture of the ugly plastic combustion carriage.
"This is a photograph." Billy Ford tapped his nose, and Cynthia cued the riggers to fly in the flat-panel display. "And this is video." Ford snapped his fingers, and the video began:
Long shot, worms-eye-view down a country road. With a swoosh of generic electronic dance music, Mr. Ford's contraption swoops up over a small rise. Its yellow plastic body panels shimmy as it closes on the camera, reflections of the surrounding trees racing across the glass pane at the front. It swiftly glides toward the camera, then sweeps over. Wipe to a series of side-on tracking shots, showcasing the thing's unflagging speed as it climbs grades – even loaded with three adult passengers – its maneuverability through a series of orange cones, its short stopping distance, its sprightly acceleration, its apparent warmth and security through a rain shower, then a snow storm, then a camera-rattling thunderstorm in the dead of night. Cut to long shot, matched to the opening shot, now facing down the road. The vehicle cruises away along the dark lane, gloomy road and trees splashed by the lights mounted at the motor cart's front end.
Billy Ford's carriage was zippy and cute. It sparked something in Cynthia's chest, a warm acquisitiveness. She wanted one of the little things. She wanted to be the kind of independent, confident person who had one of these secure boxes to pilot through the world.
"Like a train, but no tracks," Billy intoned as the video faded, the dark of the stormy night blending with the dark of a blank screen, "Glides smooth as a ship on calm waters. Can be safely operated by even a child with almost no training."
That word – safely – filled Cynthia's head like the highway thunder of hooves.
Robert Herjavec was the first to speak:
“Billy, I just want to start by saying this is amazing.”
“Thank you, Robert."
"How did you come up with all this?"
"I'm the black sheep in my family: I went to university to study the history of patent law, and happened to stumble across a slew of patents filed by a German locksmith-turned-engineer named Karl Benz. These were all from the late 1870s, just prior to his death in a factory accident. His patents included designs for lightweight horizontal two- and four-stroke internal combustion engines – engines small and light enough for practical road travel – a speed regulation system, a battery-powered 'spark plug'-based ignition system, an air-fuel blending 'carburetor,' a water-cooled radiator, a 'clutch'-controlled multi-gear transmission – all vital to adapting the stationary internal combustion engine to this much smaller mobile platform."
“Amazing!” Robert enthused, “Kudos to you! I love change, and I love technology, and the technologies you’ve brought together here are just amazing. Amazing! But I'm very uncertain about the viability.” Billy Ford’s smile did not falter, but it fell away just a touch, so that his eyes were no longer smiling, even though his mouth continued to do so. “First, no doubt you’ve created a product here, but where have you created value for the potential customer? They already have a way to get to work: The United States has excellent horse infrastructure for daily commutes. They might not love their highway horses, but that problem is solved. Where's the value to the consumer with your self-propelled wagon?"
"Let’s start by returning to household economics: Highway horses are big, lean animals with exceptionally long strides – terrifically fast, but that comes at a cost. Mr. Wonderful's trotter probably gets by on 20 pounds of hay with four or five pounds of feed on top. I imagine we're probably talking about around $250 per month in feed?" he asked Mr. Wonderful.
"That sounds about right," Mr. Wonderful allowed.
"And your highway horse?"
Mr. Wonderful was clearly uncertain.
"I know: You don't do much highway riding. But I can tell you this: Highway riding is strenuous both for the rider and the steed. The average highway horse being ridden at highway speeds five days per week for the average American commute, and eating the quality of roughage most Americans can afford, consumes almost $500 in hay and grain each month."
"There's your $500 emergency fund, Mark," Barbra quipped, "It's in the manger."
"Even resting almost entirely idle – just being used for quick errands – a highway horse is going to be gobbling up at least $350 in feed. It's just how they're bred."
Cuban – the notorious cyclist – opened his mouth, but shrewd Billy Ford was already there, with a dazzling smile and eyes as sharp as pencil points:
"A good quality bicycle being ridden by a fit adult on a good hard track can only average 16 miles per hour. Switching from highway horse to bicycle quadruples the average American commute time. And, that's assuming that the commuter has a macadam race track stretching from his or her door to his or her job, instead of a clay-based sand/silt highway track. And assuming that the rider is fit. And assuming that the rider has two spare hours in the day to commute. I don't have to tell you that for the average working-class American, all of that is far from the case. Given the world we live in, the bicycle is quite impractical."
"So, it's established that feeding a horse is expensive," Mr. Wonderful said, then gestured at the picture on the easel. "What runs your self-propelled carriage?"
"This vehicle in the video is running on gasoline."
"Gasoline?" Barbara asked.
"It's like kerosene," Mr. Wonderful supplied, clearly more than a bit charmed by the idea, "like you use in those old-fashioned camping lanterns."
"Indeed," Billy confirmed, "It's largely a novelty fuel now – the only common use I can think of are backpackers’ lightweight cook stoves. At one time it was popular as a solvent, but there are safer alternatives now; today it's practically treated as a waste product, generated at volume as a byproduct of processing sweet crude into kerosene. The U.S. is disproportionately blessed with sweet crude. Gallon to gallon, gasoline costs less than milk." He tapped the picture of his double-wide rolling porta-john. "And this vehicle can go about 25 miles on each gallon of gasoline. All in, the average American could make their average commute for about $24 per month."
"Maybe I should be feeding Dusty J. milk?" Mr. Wonderful quipped.
Billy Ford smiled. "A highway horse needs an extra nine mega-calories for each day it's ridden on an average American commute. At 2,040 calories per gallon, that's just about 4.4 gallons of whole milk each day, or 88 gallons per month for the average commute." He shrugged theatrically, "Not very cost-effective. Energy is expensive, and animals simply are not efficient – not in the way a machine can be. In fact, efficiency is another primary selling point for this product. How much manure does Dusty J. produce each day?"
Mr. Wonderful chuckled, "You'd really have to talk to my horsekeeper."
"I already have," Ford chirped.
Mr. Wonderful looked surprised, but still amused.
“I do my homework,” Billy Ford added.
Part 3 – Manure
(Click here to start from the beginning)
"A little trotter like Dusty J. produces 50 pounds of manure per day." Billy Ford flipped down the image of his self-propelled carriage to show a picture of a mound of horse dung. Lori grimaced, but didn't flinch. Mark Cuban rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "The average highway horse, minimally fed, produces at least 70 pounds. Per day, rain or shine, commute or stand in the yard munching on your shrubs. That's one ton of manure per horse per month – about two cubic yards." He flipped to the next card, showing a pristine roll away dumpster, the kind you see in alleys behind restaurants. "A restaurant dumpster like this holds about two cubic yards. I'm from a little college town in Michigan. There are 42,000 households there, averaging a horse each. That's 42,000 tons of manure monthly – just counting horses owned by resident property holders. All in, we're a city of around 130,000 souls, including the university students. But let us just consider the output of the horses that are vital to the lifestyles of the permanent residents – most of whom commute. If we loaded that manure into dumpsters and stacked them up, it'd form a tower of manure 168,000 feet tall. The tallest building in our town is a high-rise apartment building that stands 26 stories – that's 300 feet, including the antenna on top."
The Sharks – apart from Cuban – were now chuckling.
"The point is this: Even in a small-ish town in a fairly unremarkable agriculture state, the works of man are absolutely dwarfed by our teetering tower of monthly manure."
"That's astounding," Barbara said.
"And expensive. Our municipalities are crippled by the expense of horse waste disposal: hauling, storage, composting or recycling, and shipping. There's a broad misconception that all this manure just goes right back to the farm, and that's far from the truth. Fresh manure 'burns' crops. It needs to be composted – but that is exceedingly challenging at large volumes, and a major producer of greenhouse gases. As we saw in the first map, our horses are disproportionately concentrated in the cities, whereas the farmland quite obviously is not. Even if our horses dropped loads of field-ready fertilizer in need of no further processing, it would still be a burden and not a boon, because they are dropping it all in the wrong place."
Mark Cuban spoke: "And your," he gestured at the easel and the papers littering the floor, "your magic port-a-potty on wheels, it runs waste-free."
"The products of gasoline combustion are nothing more than water vapor and carbon dioxide; it'll waft away on the breeze, rather than piling up in our boulevards."
"Mist and CO2; that'll be quite a boon to the trees," Mark snipped. "Do you know how many people are in manure? How many jobs that is?"
"Yes," Billy Ford said. "It's a trillion-dollar industry, employing some 2 million Americans."
"Is that true?" a gaffer hissed in Cynthia's ear. She had no idea; she didn't really care.
"And you have no qualms about disrupting that?"
"No," Billy confirmed. "But as I said, this isn't primarily about money. It's about blood and bone: Riding horseback is remarkably dangerous, and highway riding even more so. The average rider will experience an injury once in every 100 miles of riding – that's weekly for the bulk of American workers."
This number clearly gave the Sharks pause. Cynthia could tell them a thing or two:
On her final day as an EMT Cynth had been sitting mounted in the grassy verge of the 405, trying to eat a Luna bar without fully removing her mask, when she saw the female rider. Later, when she was being questioned by the accident investigators, Cynthia couldn't say precisely why the horse and rider had caught her attention. It might have been that the rider looked so unsteady on the saddle, jouncing and rolling like a sack of laundry – but, frankly, if you spent as much time watching the highway as Cynth did, you saw plenty of riders like that, laid across their steeds' necks, almost invariably holding reins and pommel in a single hand so they could dick around with their phone in the other.
It was probably the paleness of the horse that had caught her attention. The dark tack contrasted, and Cynthia remembered noticing that the horse had no blinders, not even a blinker hood. It's dark angry eyes shone and sparkled like steel bearings in the sand. She was just starting to worry about that – an unblinkered horse on the highway was a freaking deathtrap – when a speeding sulky caught her eye.
It was a little two-wheeled race-track model – the sort of "bike" that's almost nothing but wheel disk and seat – being pulled by a big brute of a highway horse, almost 13 hands of leg alone, twice as much leg as a standardbred. Cynthia didn't think those sulky harness carts should be allowed on highways at all, even if they could go highway speed, but at least the horse was in good health and tacked up properly: the jet-black stallion had full blinders, plus shadow rolls and a head pole. On top of that, it seemed like a pretty disciplined thoroughbred, no nonsense, coursing hard.
But damned if the crazy son of a bitch in the driver's seat – a lawyerly business douche in helmet, goggles, and flapping canvas duster, his power tie whipping back over his shoulder – wasn't driving that horse like he was trying to win the Little Brown Jug, whipping it ceaseless. Standing in the grassy verge, Cynthia had instinctively reigned in her own little horse, pulling his head around to the right so he wouldn't spook.
And then it happened: Just as the speed-racing lawyer was coming up hard to pass the pale horse on the left, something – no one ever figured out what – caught the pale horse's attention. It whipped its head to the right, shied to the left, and its feet tangled. The surprised harness horse reared back, snapping the sulky's shafts, and throwing the driver forward into churning hooves. The steel shoes, driven by the power of those long, muscled legs did to the lawyer's face and torso what a pencil sharpener might do to a child's little finger.
The black stallion, now free of its cart, regained its footing and raced on, dragging the rein-tangled driver behind. Cynthia knew at once that the poor bastard was "DRT": Dead Right There.
The sulky, meanwhile, pin-wheeled up and around. The left shaft pierced the flank of the pale mare, and she folded like a card-table – albeit one going 70 miles per hour. The terrified rider dumped, hit the track, and bounced loose-limbed as a scarecrow. Something arced up from her, then tumbled down into the grassy median. "Oh jeez," Cynthia had thought, "she lost an arm!" – although that didn't really makes any sense. Who lost an arm in a horse accident?
Meanwhile, the highway was tumbling toward pandemonium: Riders were yelling and yah!ing, peeling off left and right, not just trying to avoid the thrown rider and the injured horse – who would have to fend for themselves – but also desperate to keep their own horses from seeing the full breadth of the chaos and themselves panicking.
Cynthia had dug in with her heels, and her little standardbred had sprung to a gallop, juking and dodging the rushing horses – as eerily direct as a trained barrel racer – bringing her to the fallen rider. Cynthia was off the horse like a gymnastic vaulter and down on her knees beside the injured rider before she was fully aware of what she was doing. But it hadn't really mattered; the rider – a helmeted woman in a McDonald's uniform – had been very dead, neck snapped, but still in possession of both arms.
Then a pair of brawny cops had galloped up. One pounded past, intent on running down and reigning in the runaway stallion dragging the pulped lawyer. The other had dismounted, handed Cynthia his reins, and walked to the fallen mare. As Cynthia waved off oncoming riders with big swoops of the orange flag she'd pulled from his saddle, the cop had put down the screaming pale horse with a single shot from his sidearm.
Soon after an ambulance ambled up on the service drive. The paramedics gave the McDonald's counter girl a cursory check, and then bagged her and carried her to their wagon before teaming up with the big cop to drag the cooling horse out of the roadway.
It was only after all that had cleared and the ambulance clopped off that Cynthia thought to wonder about what had flown up from the woman when she fell, the thing Cynth had initially mistaken for a severed arm.
She hobbled her pony on the far edge of the soft shoulder, then went kicking into the tall grass. She almost immediately regretted this.
It was a baby. Not even a year old, still wrapped in a Curious George blanket. The baby wore a tiny, absolutely useless little riding helmet – it must have been made for a doll – held securely in place by a pair of pink ribbons, the bow tied with obvious care.
Cynthia had no idea what to do; her training hadn't included infants. What sort of lunatic would bring an infant on the highway?
And, of course, the answer was not a lunatic at all; just someone too poor to have options.
But the fact that Cynthia didn't have proper training hardly mattered; the poor thing had stopped its breathing – weak as the rattle of a paper sack – before she'd even gotten her first disposable glove pulled on.
Cynthia bagged it, called it into the ambulance service, and finished her shift on the 405. She was fine. She went back to dispatch, still fine. Stripped, showered, changed into her street clothes, went out to the lot, took one look at her horse – a sort of moody chestnut highway mare she'd gotten cheap because it was really hard to control if you weren't as experienced as she was – and started crying.
And couldn't stop.
She walked home, took two sick days, then quit. Never even found out what happened to her horse. Didn't care.
Cynthia snapped back to the Shark Tank studio where Billy Ford was still pitching his product.
"My great-great-grandfather, Henry, was a fairly well-regarded Michigan horse breeder." Billy Ford smiled coldly, finally naming the elephant in the room: That William Firestone Ford was indeed descended from "The Father of the Modern Highway Horse."
"Famously, he wrote that 'Fundamentally, horses are animals of prey: Self-preservation by flight is their highest priority.' The only way to get faster horses was to breed for flight and fast reaction – which meant breeding for skittishness, anxiety, aggressiveness, and irritability. Mr. Wonderful is not alone: Sitting on the back of a thousand pound beast standing seven feet tall as it courses 80 miles an hour down the dirt track of I-94 – or the Jersey Turnpike, or the Pacific Coast Highway – is terrifying. I have spent my entire life around highway horses, and I avoid highway riding whenever I can. We are thrown, dragged, bucked, and maimed at an enormous rate in this country. And we only put up with it because it is the way things have always been, just 'an unavoidable part of modern life.' Is this new conveyance I've shown you an expensive product? Yes. But cost is trivial in the face of reduced fear. Is it an impractical product? Compared to the alternative: Hardly."
Part 4 – Finale
(Click here to start from the beginning)
He flipped down one last card, revealing an action shot of his self-propelled carriage, sharp and clear, zooming down a country road. Ford himself was in the driver's seat, his intense eyes on the road, hard hands on the wheel, that slight, steely smile curving the corner of his mouth like an old buckboard's leaf spring. "My automobile will revolutionize—"
Mr. Wonderful bridled. "Automobile? That's a terrible name."
This, at long last, seemed to actually throw Mr. Billy Firestone Ford, black sheep of Henry Ford's Michigan horse-breeding dynasty. "Pardon?"
"I studied ancient languages," Mr. Wonderful continued.
Barbara Corcoran laughed, shaking her head: "How many degrees do you have, Kevin?"
"This was in high school," Mr. Wonderful said without breaking eye contact with Billy Firestone Ford. "I went to that kind of high school. And 'automobile' makes no sense at all – he's mish-mashing Greek and Latin. It should be either 'ipsomobile' or 'autokineticon.'"
"And that was when it happened," Cynthia told Vince, "That's when the deal finally finished dying."
"The deal died over grammar?" The bartender asked, swabbing down the bar.
"Oh," she snorted, wide-eyed, and took a slug of beer. "It worse than died, it fucking imploded. It was all over right there for Billy Firestone Ford. That gawdawful name – 'auto-mobile' – and the gawd-awfuller grammatically correct alternatives. As soon as Mr. Wonderful said that you could see that all the Sharks were out. Billy Ford never even got to the 'I'm seeking blah blah hundreds of thousands of dollars for bleep-bloop percentage of whatever.'"
"Bummer for dude, I guess. It doesn't sound that train-wrecky."
"Oh," Cynth startled, and Vince realized the beers had been hitting her harder than he'd thought. "Ole Billy Firestone Ford, he knew when he was beat. Just stopped dead in the pitch. And that, it musta seemed like surrender to Mark Cuban, 'cause he tore back into the guy about being a fraud and an anti-horse nut, and they got into it. Like, really into it; not just that brittle heels-dug-in sorta conflict that happens every couple pitches and we slather with the dramatic music and reaction shots in post. This was spittle-flecked yelling, Cuban was up in Billy Be-Jesus Ford's face, and the next thing we knew they were swatting at each other like goddamn middle schoolers."
Vince checked the time on his phone, then stepped away, cupped his hands, and shouted: “Last call.” Cynth waved her hand frantically as she slurped down the rest of her beer in two long pulls. She handed the bottle back, gesturing for another.
Vince handed her one last beer – and scooped up one last tip – quietly accepting the fact that Cynthia was not going to be able to get herself home.
"Anyway, that's the clusterfuck; the producers are desperate to use the fight footage, but Mark is livid, 'cause he looks like more than a little of a horse's ass, and this fucking guy Ford broke his nose."
Cynthia gulped half of her final beer. "Yup. In beautiful HD. We blew it up and cranked it down to slow-mo for shits and giggles, and it is epic, this spurt of bright red glistening blood from Mark's nose as his head rocks back. Amazing." She tipped the beer back and took it all in a chug.
She set the bottle unsteadily on the bar. "The," she paused to belch. "The best." Then Vince killed the jukebox and TVs, hit the lights, and explained to his manager that he'd be back as soon as he got Cynthia home.
Outside it was noon-bright under the moonlight tower's unforgiving arc lights, rendering the sky behind it a miasmic, starless grey. The stark arcs highlighted the humming dung piles dotting the wide, mucky boulevard and heaped up on the curbs, swarming with the flies that thrived in the perpetual daylight brightness of the LA streets.
Vince posted Cynthia at the chainlink fence enclosing the dirt lot where he'd tied off his ride. It was mostly empty – not a lot of 2am drinkers mid-week – but the few horses remaining were gaunt, ill-tempered highway runners, towering well over his head on their long, slender legs, shifting and stomping. Something about the sharp, long shadows cast by those skinny legs looked like prison bars on the brick wall.
A one-eared horse with some sort of eye infection stretched over the fence and nipped at Vince's scalp. He swatted it, and it glared and went for his hand. He stumbled back and Cynthia – farther down the fence, out of the horse's reach – snorted drunkenly.
He really, really didn't want to go into the lot to get his horse. For that matter, he really, really didn't want to ride home mounted double with a sloppy drunk clinging to his back and breathing her beer breath in his ear.
"Stay here," he said, "I'll bring my ride around." He ducked through the gate, and the one-eared horse ambled up to him, shoulders squared, neck out, single tattered ear flat back. The stupid nag hadn't been hobbled and had chewed through her tether.
"Whoa up," he told the horse, palms out. She reared back like a whip crack, then whacked him in the neck with her snout. Vince was down on his ass in an instant, the landing softened by the simple fact that the "dirt" lot was mostly stomped horse shit and straw. The horse stamped and snorted, then lunged again, teeth clacking like a rat trap. He scrambled back away from her to the safety of the concrete, where the horse could not pursue him because of the gate's low arch. Nonetheless, she stamped at the edge of the concrete, her iron shoe ringing like it was being hammered by a furious blacksmith.
Cynthia, still clinging to the fence, snuffled up her laughter.
Vince tried to wipe the manure off his palms, but his jeans were slick with it. "Fuck," he spat, wondering how the hell he was going to get in there and get his damn horse. He didn't necessarily mind the two-hour walk home, but he was absolutely positive his swaybacked gelding would be rustled by sunrise. "Fuck this noise. Fucking horses."
He thought of Billy Firestone Ford's dumbass autokineticon, and suddenly desperately wanted to live in that clean and tidy world. He imagined Ford's Los Angeles, with its wide, pristine hard-top roads, its dark and quiet nights – no cries of startled riders, no clattering hooves, no dull-static susurration of flies, no stink of horse shit.
In Ford's L.A. the sky was crowded with stars, the streets lit only by the mellow little lights mounted to the front ends of the quiet ipsomobiles gliding peacefully through the night.
Given enough of Ford's contraptions, L.A. might actually be a decent place to live.
Written by: David Erik Nelson
Illustrated by: Jesse Thomas Glenn
Produced by: Seyth Miersma and John Neff