The Haunting

How can you forget the horse slaughter on Cow Mountain in Eastern Kentucky?

By Jenni Laidman

Published on Louisville.com

Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019

Tonya Conn stands in the spitting snow atop Cow Mountain, scoffing at Sheena Maynard in her lace-up boots with decorative gold metal studs on the toes.

“Well, you said to wear boots!” Maynard says.

“I didn’t say to come dressed to go out and party,” Conn replies, cozy in her winter-weight camo overalls, but with eyes carefully outlined and lashes mascaraed. “I never told you to wear beautiful stuff.”

Maynard and Conn huddle with a half-dozen others in a thicket of slender gray trees. When they climbed the embankment, they found the stinking corpse at their feet. In silhouette, if you ignore certain lurid details, the white horse looks like it’s trotting away. But most of its abdomen is gone, along with much of its viscera. Its pink-tinted ribs lie exposed like giant piano keys. Just behind the horse’s front shoulder: a bullet hole.

“I guess here’s our opportunity to get a bullet,” says Megan Goble, who grew up at the foot of this mountain.

Maynard looks at Conn. “If I put some gloves on and dig a bullet out of that horse, is that what you need?”

“You wouldn’t,” Conn says.

Everybody knows Maynard is a germophobe. Everybody knows she always carries hand sanitizer and a change of clothes and shoes. Everyone knows she won’t use a public restroom. Everybody knows the then-34-year-old wouldn’t let a runny-nose toddler touch her.

Maynard persists. “If I can get a bullet out of this horse, is that what you need to find who killed these horses?”

“Yeah,” Conn replies. “That’s what we’re up here looking for.”

Maynard takes off her new leather jacket and puts on one of the face masks she brought with her. (COVID-19 is still months away.) She pulls out a pair of blue-green rubber gloves, the kind one buys to handle caustic household products, and to the group’s combined horror and grim amusement, she crouches just behind the animal’s front legs, reaches her left arm into the cave below the ribs and begins pulling out the maroon mess of its remaining organs.

‘They’ve run for their lives.’

Tonya Conn

“Sheena, you always say: Go big or go home,” Conn taunts.

She, Maynard and Goble have known one another for nine or ten years. “Now they’re more like my kids,” Conn messages me later. “Although there are days they would rather throat punch me, I love them like my own.”

“I hate you, Tonya,” Maynard growls, tugging the thin tissue that wraps the organs. “This the liver?” she asks, pointing with a knife at a slick purplish mass. Conn, a former vet tech in a large animal practice, confirms it is. Maynard slashes at the connective tissue, separating viscera from the chest wall.

“See all that clotted blood?” Conn says. “That will be your trail right there.” They hope it’s the trail to a bullet.

“I’m glad I didn’t eat no breakfast,” one of the men in the party comments. In the video made at the scene that afternoon, the others chuckle in uncomfortable recognition. Maynard continues slicing away with her right hand, her left hand now resting in a pool of congealed blood. “Oh, Lord Jesus in heaven, please help us!” she cries. It’s not that she’s religious. It’s just what you have to say when you’re elbow-deep in a carcass, and you just got stinking goop on your new boots, and you still haven’t found the bullet you desperately want to find. She hopes, they all hope, that a bullet will be the essential clue to what feels like a collective nightmare: Someone, very likely someone they know, killed 20 healthy, free-roaming horses atop Cow Mountain. Maybe a bullet will help them find out just who.

Monday, Dec. 16

For Tonya Conn it begins Monday as she feeds the 11 animals in her barn. Conn, 50 at the time of these events, lives in the Floyd County town of Garrett near the Knott County line, some 200 miles east of Louisville. Monday marks day two in her brief breather before Christmas. Not only does Conn run an animal-welfare group, Dumas Rescue, with a tiny band of volunteers, but she and other Dumas volunteers collect a building full of food, toys and clothing donations for a giant Christmas party every year. Planning for the event began before Halloween, and the work didn’t stop until the party was over. That was Saturday. Conn’s life is bursting with such things. Her Facebook page is a mix of animal rescue updates, silly memes, Christian messages, photos of her feet by a firepit and an occasional glamor headshot: her shoulder-length blond hair parted in the center and winged to frame her eyes, always darkened by the eyeliner she won’t leave the house without.

When she receives a text from Floyd County Sheriff John Hunt around 4 p.m., she isn’t surprised. She and the sheriff often work together. Deputies contact her on animal-welfare cases. They ask her to step in if someone heading to jail leaves untended animals behind. But the details of this text astonish her. Tomorrow, the sheriff wants her help searching the Cow Mountain strip job — “strip job” is the local term for a reclaimed strip mine — in response to a report that every horse on the mountain has been shot and killed. Conn doesn’t want to believe it. “If they were really dead, as bad as it sounds, I hoped maybe somebody had put some bad hay back there, and they died from that — anything but the malice of somebody shooting them.” Or maybe they aren’t even dead, she thinks. Maybe it’s just a bad joke.

But Chuck Bradford, one of the first people to hear from the sheriff, had already confirmed the truth. At the sheriff’s request, he and his then-20-year-old son, Dalton, headed up the mountain to look around. Bradford is oddly qualified for the assignment. A decade ago, his family lost 15 head of cattle up there. His wife’s grandfather kept a herd of 30-some on the strip job. “We’d ride up every Sunday, and we missed a Sunday,” he says. The next week, “They’d fallen over dead,” he says. Half the cattle were gone. A postmortem examination revealed strychnine. They were intentionally poisoned.

Bradford figured, at worst, that’s what he would find on this mission for the sheriff. Then, as the sun lowered atop the rough mesa where chunks of glossy black coal still surface, he found the dead horses. He called the sheriff and told him, “It looks like a massacre.”

Tuesday, Dec. 17

The sheriff’s news keeps Conn awake, listening to a fierce storm rolling through the Eastern Kentucky hills, dreading the muck, the treacherous trip up the mountain in the morning and whatever waits for her at the crest. At the best of times, she finds the Cow Mountain strip job eerie, unwelcoming. “I’ve never been on a mountain that’s as desolate and lonely as that one,” she says. Just three months earlier, she rescued horses from its other side, and it was bleak then, too. “I don’t ever remember the sun shining.”

There are dozens of trails up Cow Mountain, and John Goble, 58 in 2019, white bearded and broad bellied, knows most of them. The former county magistrate and used-car dealer lives at the foot of the mountain in a handsome, sprawling brown house with a green metal roof. Every year he and friends plant portions of the strip job with forage for deer and horses. He rides its rutted paths in a side-by-side the way other people take the interstate. (The vehicles look like two- or four-seat Army Jeeps.) He traverses its steep paths and hairpin curves in the most forbidding weather to visit friends on the other side of the mountain. He hunts its hillocks and its depressions. In a landscape where a stunted evergreen or an ever-so-slight rise serve as trail markers, an internal map guides him easily. Late Tuesday morning, with his then-30-year-old daughter, Megan, beside him in his Polaris, he leads three more vehicles up the steep, sloppy trail to look for dead horses while a mousy gray sky tosses handfuls of sleet.

Sheriff Hunt rides with a volunteer firefighter. More than once as the vehicle claws its way through viscous mud or tilts in a flirtation with gravity’s pull on a sharply banked turn, he thinks about getting out and walking. It would feel safer. And he knows this mountain. When he was a boy on Cow Creek, it was his backyard.

Everyone in this dismayed convoy, not just the sheriff and deputies, carry guns. Some of the civilians say the guns are for bear. For others, it’s the coyotes. For more than a few, it’s the human predators they worry about. “How safe are we back here?” Conn wonders as she white-knuckles a grab bar. After her sleepless night, she’s running on adrenaline alone as they bounce along the trail.

Near the summit, 21-one-year-old J.T. Layne, a volunteer firefighter and pipeline worker who drives one of the side-by-sides, feels the mood, already solemn beneath the throaty roars of the off-road vehicles, grow heavier, quieter. His stomach drops as a queer chill descends. “The smell of death just roams the whole ridge line,” he says.

Deputy Derrick Blackburn is in the back of a side-by-side driven by Dumas volunteer Kyle Griffith. Blackburn’s voice is a musical rumble. He leaves generous spaces around each sentence, unbothered by the silence he creates. As they crawl up the rain-bogged trail, he begins to understand what they’re about to see. He can smell the rot. “I’ve never been in any kind of war or anything, but from watching horror movies, it looked like a battlefield,” he says. “It makes you mad and sad and everything. … Those horses never bothered anybody.” When he gets off the mountain, he’ll spend the rest of the day with his own three horses, Lady, Rusty and Daisy, trying to calm down, trying to imagine “what on earth would possess anybody to do a thing like that?” Before the day ends, it becomes a question people ask around the world.

The strip job is a rolling plateau stretching to the cloud-pocked horizon, but its expanse hides a complex of burnished weed-covered rises and green depressions, making the terrain a complicated maze. The search team will find 13 horse bodies today. Griffith will create a map of where each horse fell by taking the GPS position of each carcass. On a map, the shooting seems organized, as though the horses were plowed down as they stood in neat rows. But to the search party wandering the twisting paths, it is chaos: massive horse bodies down one trail, nothing down others. Horses in the brambles. Horses in a scooped-out hollow, gracile yearlings stretched out beside their dams. Searchers quickly lose their bearings in the puzzling landscape.

The first horse they see is a chestnut mare with a white mane and four white feet. Already, her body bloats. Conn identifies the red balloon bursting from the mare’s vulva as an amniotic sac expelled in death. Against the sac’s pink membrane, Conn can just make out the tiny white hoof of a foal waiting to be born. All these paint horses on Cow Mountain have four white feet. Even though the group expected nothing less than this carnage, no one is immune from the shock. Megan Goble watches emotion play across the sheriff’s rectangular face. “He’s a big horse person,” she says. “He was pretty upset.” Detective Sgt. Kevin Shepherd and Conn begin examining the carcass. The firemen with the group flip the heavy body to look for an exit wound. There is none. They search for shell casings, as they will all day, and will again later using a metal detector. They will find nothing.

After that first horse, the land falls away into what Megan Goble dubs Death Valley. “And that’s where we find them,” she says. Detective Shepherd, 6’1” and cue-ball bald, has a voice that is soft and measured, like he’s carefully giving directions to children. “It’s just horses as far as you could look,” he says. “You could stand in one spot and see across this strip mine, flat, just horses strewn all over the place.”

As Shepherd makes notes, Conn lists the horses’ distinguishing markings, their color, their sex. She looks at their teeth to estimate ages. Other deputies scan for evidence. They pick up empty soda bottles, maybe recently dropped, maybe months’ old. Vehicle tracks crisscross the mesa, but last night’s rain makes it impossible to say which tracks are old and which are new. Layne, who had Conn as his gym teacher from kindergarten through fifth grade, imagines what might have happened. He sees a man with a lightweight semi-automatic rifle strapped over his shoulder, a gun capable of shooting fast, penetrating rounds. He sees an experienced hunter who knows this ground well, firing over and over from a side-by-side, inside which the shell casings clatter to the floor. Megan Goble pictures someone on the ridge above Death Valley picking horses off one by one. Nearly every shot is a lung shot. Some horses are probably hit more than once. Some horses run before they fall. In places scrapes in the earth testify to a horse that kicked and struggled as it died. But in Goble’s vision of what happened, the hunt changes after the initial sniper attack. Now the shooter and maybe a companion track down the remaining animals and continue the bloodbath. Maybe that’s how it happened. Everyone has a theory. No one knows.

It probably wasn’t a group of teenagers or young people partying, Sheriff Hunt says. He comes to believe there is only one shooter. “Somebody just doing this out of pure meanness.” A lifelong police officer and son of a Floyd County deputy, Hunt retired from the Kentucky State Police after 21 years and began serving as sheriff in 2014. He’s a compact man with short-cropped light hair who gestures with both hands, palms open, as he talks about what might make someone slaughter a herd. “OK, you just lost your mind for a minute and shot a horse,” he says. “How do you shoot horse after horse after horse to watch it fall? For no other reason than just to watch it fall, mad at whatever issues you have with yourself?” His voice gets quieter, thinner, as he pictures it. “But whatever you got going on — just to shoot 20 horses?”

‘How do you shoot horse

after horse to watch it fall?’

— Floyd County Sheriff John Hunt

The chase couldn’t have been much of a challenge. These were animals conditioned to human company. People meant food. “They would come right up to you,” Megan Goble says, “and you could pet on them and love on ’em. A lot of people in the community would go up there and feed them.” On that cold December afternoon on the carcass-scattered field, three surviving horses approach. (Ultimately, six surviving horses are found.) “And then they followed us,” Goble says. “They’re used to people being with them, so it probably wouldn’t have been hard. [The shooter or shooters] probably walked right up to them, close to them, and then just went on a shooting spree.”

As Conn wanders deeper into the killing field, she begins to personalize it. Another person may not attribute human emotions to animals, but Conn’s life is overrun and animated by her compassion for them. Dumas Rescue was founded in 2002 to deal with stray, abandoned or abused dogs. Conn took over as president in 2004. Demand drove the group to branch into horses about eight years ago. There’s no telling how many animals she’s found homes for in those years but definitely several thousand. Now she’s caught in a flood of the abused and abandoned. She can’t stop it. She put up a gate at her home to keep people from dropping off unwanted pets, and still they come. From February to mid-April 2021, Conn and Dumas Rescue saved almost 500 dogs — almost as many as they rescued in all of 2020. Even she’s amazed. “How do you do that? Where do they come from?”

Like nearly everyone in rescue, her personal animal menagerie has grown: She has six horses and seven dogs. Her adopted cow died in 2020. Each animal has a story: There’s Sister, the Pomeranian mix she bottle-fed from the time the pup was three days old. During the workday, the pup stayed in an insulated lunch box in the principal’s office at the school where Conn works. Several times a day, the school’s public-address system would call her to feedings: “Tonya, come to the office please.” Gus the pug mix was starving when he arrived with his brother Gil, who was dead by the time Conn set eyes on him. Gus was so terrified, he wouldn’t come into her house. In winter, Conn snuck up on him and wrestled him into a sweater while the muscular mutt fought her. “He ate me up!” she says. He lived in the barn loft for a year, coming down only to eat and drink. “Then one day he decided he was coming into the house. And he came in and that was that,” she says.

Brody is a “stout, sassy gelding,” who, at seven days old, had been pulled from a strip job and roped in a yard with a dog collar around his neck. An older man saw the colt, traded his push mower to save it, and brought him to Conn. The man didn’t even have gas money to get home. A thin, ragged colt staggered from the man’s ramshackle trailer. “I thought: That horse will never live,” Conn says. Now she calls the eight-year-old “my heart horse. He nickers when I get out of sight. He’s a mama’s boy.”

The stories go on and on.

As they walk Cow Mountain, Conn fights her own instincts, determined to keep her emotions in check. Then she sees the red-and-white filly, maybe a year old, her front leg cocked like she’s ready to run, her head twisted awkwardly against a tree, her mouth soft and white, her empty eyes staring into the sky. “It a baby,” Conn says quietly. “You can’t not see their fear. You can’t not smell the fear. You just can’t. If you know anything about horses, you see fear in their eyes. They’ve run for their lives.”

All the horses are shot in the chest except one. A little cinnamon-colored paint lying in the open has a hole in his face where a bullet entered. In its mouth, a bit of fescue remains. That detail, the fact that the horse was feeding peacefully, almost everyone mentions it to me. As the afternoon winds on, the group discovers two more carcasses farther into the brambles. These bear obvious signs of animal scavenging: a ribcage revealed from the shoulder to mid-belly, another horse with a neck sliced to ribbons and two pink holes where eyes had been. As the group heads down Cow Mountain in wrecked silence, it starts to snow.

Atop the Cow Mountain strip job.

“One of Us”

At the foot of the mountain, a crew from the CBS affiliate in Hazard, WYMT, waits for them. Megan Goble goes home and posts photographs of the dead animals on Facebook. She’s furious, unwilling to spare anyone the gore she witnessed. “I felt like people needed to see,” she says. “If people don’t know this goes on, don’t know the severity of it, nothing is going to happen. And people need to know. They need to get mad. It needs to bother them. It needs to upset them.”

What may be the worst of it: Whoever did this, they know this strip job. This wasn’t a stranger climbing one of the many access roads up the mountain. A stranger would attract attention. This fact eats at the sheriff, this strong possibility that he’s looking at the work of a neighbor. “I hate to think that it’s somebody that grew up in our area,” Hunt says, “that cherished a horse and knew it, and knew our history. It’s a cowardly act, and it’s a defenseless animal.

“And it’s personal, to be honest. It’s personal.”

Megan Goble says, “It wouldn’t shock me a bit if it was somebody that I went to high school with or knew my whole life. It wouldn’t shock me ’cause that’s how close-knit we are. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows where you live. Everybody knows who your parents are.” That’s just the way it is in Prestonsburg.

Prestonsburg proper is less than 10 miles from Cow Mountain. On the road between the strip job and downtown stands the memorial to the town’s biggest tragedy, the bus accident that killed 26 elementary and high school students and the driver in 1958 when school bus No. 27 plunged into the flood-swollen Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. At the time, it was the worst bus accident in the history of the United States, only to be matched in the state in 1988 by the horrific bus accident in Carrollton caused by a drunken driver.

Like many mountain towns, Prestonsburg is longer than it is wide, its business district snaking like a river, constrained by surrounding topography. There is the usual jumble of chain stores that unite the nation in a ticky-tacky monotony: Walmart, Walgreens, AutoZone, a half-dozen Family Dollars, Dollar Trees and Dollar Generals. Nearly every fast-food franchise is here, and McDonald’s twice, separated by 2.2 miles of highway. You can even buy a Starbucks latte at Food City. But the Floyd County seat of 2,900 souls roughly an hour from West Virginia to the east or Virginia to the south retains a healthy collection of homegrown commerce. Skip both McDonald’s and grab a Smashburger at Dairy Cheer instead. Ignore Taco Bell and settle in at El Azul Grande or El Rodeo Grande. Cold-shoulder Starbucks and zip over to City Perk. Have a nice dinner at the Brick House. Motor to the Cloud Nine Cafe at the airport on a strip job just over the Martin County line. It’s crowded on Sunday afternoon, but if you’re lucky, you may see an elk grazing or an airplane taking off.

It’s hard not to attribute some symbolism to the community’s choice of an icon: a rainbow arch bridge built in 1928. It’s celebrated in murals and signs all over town and etched in white on every city trash barrel. But the bridge itself is now so dilapidated that it’s barred to even pedestrian traffic. Yet Prestonsburg’s downtown is vital, with dress shops, children’s-wear purveyors, a sewing center, a photo studio. You can do yoga in the old post office building and even have your wrinkles smoothed and lips plumped at a downtown aesthetician business. Don’t look here for Mayberry. The town is not trapped in amber. There is no Floyd’s Barbershop; Wright’s barber shop is a butter-colored building with orange and aqua highlights. And Billy Ray’s, with its red upholstered booths, tin ceiling and low lighting is too slick to be the Bluebird Cafe. As in many towns, bored teens spend their evenings driving around listening to music or congregating in a downtown parking lot. What Prestonsburg lacks in adolescent entertainment it makes up for in churches. Even the downtown stores advertise their love for Jesus: “This studio is owned by our Father in heaven I just manage it.” “Fall for Jesus He never leaves.” “Every single holler you go up, I guarantee there’s a church,” Megan Goble says.

When the sheriff’s department announces a road accident on Facebook, at least a dozen people pipe up to say they’re praying. When there’s flooding, people are praying. When there’s a rock fall, people are praying. When the sheriff’s house burned down in December 2020, they prayed again. But more often, the sheriff’s Facebook page is full of drug-bust announcements — fentanyl, heroin, meth, that unholy trinity — week after week after week, the same sad litany accompanied by more prayer and atta-boys for the sheriff.

But to the wider world, the vital little town didn’t exist until Megan Goble started posting photographs on Facebook. And suddenly, everyone was watching. “Within the first hour or two of me posting, my phone did not stop,” she says. “My anxiety was going through the roof because I was like, What have I done? I think I had over a thousand and some shares within the first hour, and it just kept growing and growing and growing and growing, and people kept sending me messages and calling. I had 300 friend requests from people from all over.” In 24 hours, her post had been shared 14,000 times. Journalists from everywhere — Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland — were calling Conn, Goble and the sheriff. Within that first 24 hours, there was a $1,500 reward fund created by Megan Goble, Sheena Maynard and the sheriff personally. By noon, the reward rose to $3,000. Four days later, it reached $20,000, with donations from all over the country. It finally peaked at $23,000.

The reward fuels rumors. The sheriff’s department’s phone rings with tips and, from all over the world, encouragement. “Everybody wanted to pitch in and help,” Hunt says. Although some tips are clearly from people hoping for a payday, many more that arrive via the department’s anonymous tip line are sincere. “We checked every tip that came in,” Detective Shepherd says. “At one time, I think every time that phone rang, it was a call about the horses.”

Although this is the worst horse-abuse incident anyone can recall, it’s not the only time strip job horses have been shot. Four years ago, somebody shot three stallions point blank in Martin County just west of Floyd on the West Virginia line. The deaths remain unsolved, but some believe the stallions were shot to keep strip job mares from getting pregnant. “It used to be common knowledge that you wouldn’t put a stud horse on a strip job,” says Joey Collins, the Pikeville large-animal veterinarian who came up to Cow Mountain to perform a field necropsy two days after the Cow Mountain horse slaughter was discovered. It wasn’t a first for him. “I’ve seen things like this,” Collins said. Thirteen years ago, a pair of teenagers killed three horses and injured eight on a strip job near Elkhorn City in Pike County in the far southeast corner of the state, shooting one four-year-old mare 50 times. They simply stood over the mare and unloaded into her. The teenagers pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges and were each sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay $25,000 in restitution. In 2021 there have been at least two more fatal horse shootings, and at least one horse wounded by gunshot.

But why are horses even up on these mountains? Why are strip jobs throughout the eastern half of the state home to growing horse herds, half or more feral? Collins, a vet for 32 years — whose clinic operates on a first-come, first-served basis because people come so far to see him — has watched the herds expand. Fueling that growth, he suggests, is the closing of horse slaughterhouses in the United States in 2007 when Congress essentially banned domestic horse-meat operations. Slaughter plants meant that horses always had market value. They were worth too much to simply let go. The Humane Society of the United States takes a different view. With slaughterhouses still operating in Canada and Mexico, it argues, the number of horses sent to the abattoir hasn’t decreased. It reports that more than 80,000 American horses, most of them healthy, are slaughtered every year. Instead, the organization maintains, horse abandonment is an outgrowth of economic downturns — a rationale that, if you think about it, is close to the one Collins offers. In any event, even without U.S. slaughterhouses, there are occasional stories about horses disappearing from strip jobs, rumored to be taken for slaughter over a border. A federal program that paid people to adopt feral Mustangs out West turned into a direct line to the slaughterhouse for some horses when people used the program for profit, recruiting everyone they knew to adopt animals, which they then sent for slaughter. Further, illegal slaughter operations have been reported in the United States.

Another reason for the growing abandonment problem is the lack of consequences for the owner who walks away from an animal. The practice didn’t start as abandonment; people released their mares and geldings on strip jobs for summer grazing, then brought them home before winter set in. When coal was still king, mining company personnel and some miners would set out hay bales and keep an eye on the animals, says State Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson. (Grayson is in Carter County in northeast Kentucky.) “It used to be a pretty symbiotic relationship,” Webb says. But a lot has changed. The mines closed. Some sites went into bond forfeiture or bankruptcy, she said. With mine jobs gone, families couldn’t keep up with the expense of horse ownership. An often-cited University of Maine survey found the average annual cost of owning a single horse is $3,800 — and that’s if you can keep the horse on your own property, the common rural practice. Add another $8,000 or so if the horse must be boarded. Cash-strapped or indifferent horse owners stopped bringing their summer-grazing horses home for the winter. But what turned the brushfire of abandonment into a wildfire of overpopulation was the rampant release of stallions onto the strip jobs with inevitable results. Herds doubled in size, often outstripping the ability of the land to support them. They receive no veterinary care, such as regular vaccination. Sick or injured horses die if no one can intervene, and although these horses will approach people for food, that doesn’t mean they’ll stand still to have a lame foot tended. Oftentimes, people who live near strip jobs will help feed horses and bring them salt blocks rather than see animals starve or wander down to the road to be hit by cars, but that’s at best a temporary solution. Although some view the “wild horses” as tourist attractions, the reality of strip job horses isn’t postcard material. For instance, in 2018-’19, the Kentucky Humane Society, headquartered in Louisville, removed more than 50 horses from the Ruff-N-Tuff strip job 10 miles west of Prestonsburg. Neighbors who tried to protect the animals from starvation and frequent human harassment were overwhelmed by the animals’ needs and human abuse of the free-roaming horses. In some ways, laws work in the abandoner’s favor, making horses difficult to rescue even when they are starving to death. Owners have interrupted more than one rescue.

Sen. Webb along with Sen. Johnny Turner, D-Prestonsburg, proposed the formation of an Abandoned Horses Task Force after the Cow Mountain horses were killed, but the idea gained no traction in the Republican-controlled Senate in 2020. “We didn’t get a hearing or anything. It just laid there,” Webb says. “Of course, it was a strange session. COVID hit, and nothing really got done.” This year, no animal-welfare legislation passed during the abbreviated legislative session in Frankfort. “Stewardship demands the state tackle the problem,” Webb says. “If you’re going to have them out there, you’ve got to manage them. If you’re going to allow them to exist and continue, they need to be managed for their health and the health of other species.”

Conn said a visit this spring to one strip job she declined to identify revealed that conditions are worse than ever. “Even though we had a milder winter here and spring grass has been up for five or six weeks, and we’ve had good growth even at the higher elevations, the yearlings are in extremely bad shape, with dull coats, lethargic, not to mention lice-ridden. They have a heavy, heavy load of engorged ticks already. That leads to anemia when they’re already struggling. They’re not getting enough nutrition nursing on a mother who’s already given all she’s got to the baby in her belly when she didn’t have enough forage. It was just really, really heartbreaking to see that they didn’t gain weight with the spring grass.”

In the meantime, the horses are destroying the ecosystem that mine reclamation was to restore, Conn says. Because a horse, unlike deer, elk, or even cattle, pull up grass by the root, they strip the mountaintop bare. When the grasses are gone, the horses eat the bark off the trees. The lost browse and trees mean deer and elk go hungry and turkeys have nowhere to roost. Turkeys eat the insects that attack deer and elk; their absence leads to deer, elk and horses weakened by parasites.

Abandoned horses may prove a barrier to economic growth as well. Fifty-six horses live on the Martiki strip job in Martin County, Conn said. Edelen Renewables, founded by former Democratic state auditor Adam Edelen, plans to construct some 700,000 solar modules on Martiki, which would produce enough power to light up 33,000 homes, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. But abandoned horses are a barrier. “Of course the horses are wreaking havoc on the equipment and the construction,” Conn says.

Lori Redmon, president and CEO of the Kentucky Humane Society, says an aerial survey of reclaimed strip mines this winter revealed 743 abandoned horses roaming Eastern Kentucky, but Redmon said the actual number is probably higher. Even though the absence of leaf cover made it possible to improve on an earlier ground-based survey that found 500 horses, Redmon said some horses were very likely hidden by brush, scrub or other barriers.

Unbridled Spirit

Kentucky is a state that puts a horse on its license plates and adopts “Unbridled Spirit” as its brand. It’s where regular people can name breeders and jockeys and favorite Derby winners and wish each other “Happy Derby” like it’s a second Christmas; where Jefferson County Public Schools elevates a horse race to holiday status and closes every Oaks Day; where schools stage stick-horse Derbies — complete with the Call to Post — for galloping preschoolers. In such a state, how is any of this abandonment and abuse even imaginable, let alone actual?

We are the “Horse Capital of the World,” with one horse for every 19 people (only Oklahoma can beat that); with more than a quarter-million horses (more than in 45 other states); with a horse industry that employs 40,000 and creates $6.5 billion in revenue annually; with the county comprising the state’s biggest city, Louisville, home to 7,400 horses worth an estimated $124 million, in a 2013 survey; with Shelby County on Louisville’s eastern border, the “American Saddlebred Capital of the World,” home to one horse for every eight people; where in Louisville we have big painted fiberglass statues of horses all over town; where we have horse posters and paintings in our family rooms and living rooms and dens. In a state like this, wouldn’t you just assume that abuse and abandonment wouldn’t just be impossible, but anathema?

I mean, what the hell, people?

Yet Kentucky has consistently occupied the absolute bottom of national rankings for animal welfare. In an annual review of animal-protection laws, Kentucky held 50th place for 12 years before rising to 47th in the most recent 2019 survey by finally making it illegal to have sex with an animal. The state also removed a provision that prohibited veterinarians from reporting instances of pet abuse to law enforcement. It was the only state in the country with such a prohibition. But the law doesn’t cover horses. Vets continue to need a second opinion from the state veterinarian to report abuse of poultry or livestock, and that includes horses, which the Kentucky legislature reclassified as livestock instead of domestic companion animals in 2017.

Kentucky ranked 50th in animal protection until 2019 when it rose to 47th by finally making it illegal to have sex with an animal.

Animal Legal Defense Fund

Weeks after the horses were shot on the Cow Creek strip job, Megan Goble and Sheena Maynard meet me for lunch at El Azul Grande. The restaurant in the shopping center carries echoes of Mexico City with its orange-and-blue color scheme and a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe presiding over the cash register. People line up outside early Sunday afternoon. Several greet Goble and Maynard, both of whom run dog-grooming shops: Maynard’s is Lou’s Place for Pets (named for her first “foster failure,” the mini-Pinscher Lou); Goble’s is Bones and Bows Dog Salon. Both women rescue animals — lots and lots of animals, usually finding new homes for them, but sometimes keeping the unadoptables: chinchillas that don’t want to be touched, hedgehogs that like to masturbate, a ball python. These are not fun pets. Maynard rescued two sugar gliders, a male and a female who were at first happy in side-by-side cages. Then she rescued another male, which made the female scream and cry because she wanted to be with the boys. “My husband looked at me and said, ‘If you don’t’ get another fucking sugar glider, I’m leaving,’” she says. Another rescue group had a female friend for her female. “I mean, it was just completely satanic. It’s awful. You can’t touch it. And it bites and scratches. But I put it in with the other female, and they absolutely love each other and they hate me. So we’re like college roommates, and I give them offerings so they don’t kill me. But I don’t’ care. They’re safe. Kids aren’t torturing them. They’re not super-expensive to keep up. I don’t mind.”

Goble’s specialty is pit bulls, which are difficult to rehome. She has 11 herself, plus a corgi mix and a hound mix. Maynard focuses on pregnant cats. In February, she was gearing up for kitten season. How many cats share her home? “I’d rather tell you what I weigh,” she says.

One day a few years ago, Maynard’s mother called her about horses running through yards in Arkansas Creek in southern Floyd County. One of the horses had been shot. When I meet Maynard, her hand is swollen from the bite of a grooming customer. Her eyelids are tinted like rainbows, beginning with pink in the inner corners and gradually shading to dark blue. She owns more than 50 palettes of eye shadow with more on the way. She and Goble rode out to Arkansas Creek to see what they could do. As they followed the horses, a man on a four-wheeler flashed a gun and warned them off, claiming to know the horses’ owner. “And as dumb as I can get,” Maynard says, “I turned around and said, ‘Well, good. Because I’ll call the ef-in’ judge right now because we’ve got a warrant on his desk for their arrest.’” She says that was enough to send the gunslinger away. The women caught the mare from the group and walked her to safety using every dog leash in Goble’s car as a harness. Still, the man with the gun had a point. A claim of ownership could have stopped the rescue effort. And even after a rescuer grabs a horse, it’s not over. They must hold onto it for 15 days. They cannot rehome it until the state-mandated “stray hold” runs out.

It used to be worse. In 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear signed a law that reduced the horse stray hold to 15 days from 90. A 90-day stray hold made it hopelessly expensive to remove horses from even life-threatening situations. But Conn says 15 days is still too long. “Fifteen days with 25 horses is a monumental financial obligation,” she says. Her own Dumas Rescue is already strapped financially. “We just blow bubbles — we don’t even keep our head above water.” And because it’s legal to let a horse loose, no horse rescue can begin until a county judge executive is successfully petitioned for permission.

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Conn wants the state to outlaw horse abandonment. She wants the stray hold shortened to five days, which is what’s required for a dog or a cat. Until the law is changed, she says, Kentucky will have a growing population of inbred horses that aren’t being vaccinated against rabies and other diseases, that aren’t being fed regularly when the weather’s against them, that aren’t being cared for when they’re injured, that will probably never be rideable, and that no one will ever want. While the Cow Creek horses were, by all accounts, healthy and well-fed, that’s often not the case. Come winter or summer drought, they starve. They grow desperate for salt and wander down to roads where they’ll destroy yards and gardens and get hit by cars.

“I’ve put a lot of horses to sleep down on the road hit by a car,” veterinarian Collins says. The same owner who might object to an intervention of a rescue group is no longer interested when the horse is dying. “When they’re hit by a car, nobody owns them, nobody will claim them, because then they’d be responsible for damage to the vehicle,” Collins says.

Conn, worn out by the problem, couldn’t be more frustrated. “This practice needs to stop,” she says. “It needs to stop. It shouldn’t be any different for those horses than it is for a dog or cat.”

More at Stake Than Horses

Sunday, Dec. 22, is Maynard’s first trip up Cow Mountain and Conn’s third since the horses were discovered. “Any time there’s a crime involving animals, my phone never stops,” Maynard says. But this time, people all over town were talking about the slaughtered horses. “Everybody’s angry,” she says. “This whole town is outraged by it. Even people who aren’t animal people, who hate dogs, hate cats, will tell you there was no point to this, that whoever did it needs to pay.”

Someone posts on Tonya Conn’s Facebook page: “All the people in the area of these killings should talk to their ministers about giving a sermon on this and what this means to a community where violence against animals is often linked to violence against humans.”

Collins, the veterinarian, fears the truth of this. Scores of studies show a link between animal cruelty and domestic violence. An overview of this research published in 2017 found 94 studies (98 percent of all studies on the subject) showed a connection between domestic violence and animal abuse. A 2014 study of 301 men arrested for domestic violence, for instance, found that 41 percent had committed at least one act of animal abuse as an adult.

“We need to find out who this is,” Collins says. There could be more at stake than horses.

When Collins was unable to recover a bullet for testing during a field necropsy on Thursday, the veterinarian recommended the group ship a body to the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory. And that’s why Maynard and others head up the mountain on the 22nd.

The group quickly finds the smallest yearling, shimmies the carcass onto a tarp, bundles it with bungie cords and lashes it to a utility trailer behind a side-by-side. As they finish, Kyle Griffith wanders off on his own down a narrow track through the brush and then up a rise. Part way up the hill is a shelf where he finds a horse carcass no one has seen before. Soon, the group discovers more bodies in the weeds and vines. Three are partially scavenged, most likely by coyotes and vultures, and maybe by black bear. This is when Maynard volunteers to look for a bullet. She never finds one. But for her, the unpleasant dissection was the least she could do for these animals.

“Those horses suffered. Whether that be for 30 seconds or 30 minutes or an hour or the next day, they suffered,” Maynard says. “I was just so upset over that, I thought, you know, if I could avenge them in any way and make their lives worth something, I was just going to do it.

“If we went back on that mountain, you know, a month into decomposition, if somebody looked at me dead in the face and said, ‘If you’ll dig around in that horse and pull a bullet out, we’ll go arrest that guy right now,’ I would do it again. I would.”

Feb. 19, 2020

John Goble lives in Cow Creek hollow on Megan’s Cove, named for his daughter. Beside the family’s big house is a go-kart track he built for her. The custard-colored building next door was once done up for kids’ parties with pool tables, air hockey and arcade games. Megan may be too old for go-karts and dad’s party barn, but she lives in a little house her father gave her at the end of his driveway. She calls it a fortress because of the tall chain-link fence that keeps her 13 dogs, eight cats, three chinchillas, a ferret, a rat and a python safe. Her Prestonsburg grooming salon is on the lot where her dad ran his used-car dealership. Today he’s doing her another favor by taking me up to the Cow Creek strip job.

We’re a tight fit on the two-seat Polaris Ranger. My right hip is jammed hard against the small bar that defines the edge of the seat. Without it, I would shoot off the side under pressure. I give up on the uncooperative seatbelt, which raises my stress level. I remind myself that John Goble has made this drive in the snow and mud. He reassures me that this is a daily activity for him.

I can’t hear what father and daughter say once the machine roars across the yard and toward the mountain. The day is sunny, clear and cool. The sky is a golden blue streaked with wispy clouds. On flat sections of trail, I hear John Goble’s nice voice rise above the engine’s guttural rumble: “She’s a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timing man.” Then the engine swallows the rest of the song.

I spent an hour this morning with Sheriff Hunt and Sgt. Shepherd in the three-room sheriff’s department. It’s shoehorned into the 1964 courthouse with the handsome bronze statue of Prestonsburg’s Bert Combs, “the governor from the mountains,” out front. A photo of Barney Fife watches over us from one wall of the jampacked sheriff’s office, which is improbably papered in green-and-gold stripes, like someone’s 1992 dining room. On Christmas day 2019, Shepherd learned that the UK diagnostics lab recovered two bullets from the horse carcass. Soon, the sheriff’s office knew what type of gun it came from. Local gun stores say they don’t sell too many of them. Hunt doesn’t want to share anything about the ballistics. All over town, people are saying the bullet is a .22, but Hunt won’t confirm it, and that’s not the whole story anyway. He and Shepherd sound optimistic about finding the shooter. Shepherd will sound optimistic again when I talk to him three weeks later.

The three horses that followed the search team the day they first saw the slaughter have been moved to the Kentucky Humane Society’s Willow Hope Farm in Simpsonville: The mare, obviously once someone’s pet, was hugely pregnant when she came off the mountain and still nursing a yearling. KHS separated the exhausted, hungry animal from the colt. They named the mare Hope, which means that the Humane Society farm now carries the names of two Cow Creek horses. Willow came off the same strip job in October. They named the yearling Knox, which is Scottish for “from the hills.” He’s adopted quickly. In May 2020, Hope gave birth to Lucius, who was named by a donor and adopted in December. Hope remains in training but will be ready for adoption soon. A few days after Hope and Knox are rescued, Hope’s older filly is brought off the mountain and to the KHS farm. They name her Diamond, for coal under pressure. She’s feral, and Redmon, KHS’ president, says they’re taking her training slowly. “She’s very untrusting of people. She was born out there and never handled,” she says. “The trauma of the shooting seems to have lingered in her and showed up in her distrust of humans.” The last three survivors remain on Cow Creek. Dumas Rescue and KHS have so far been unable to retrieve them.

John Goble stops the Polaris as we reach the top of the mountain so Megan can climb out to open a gate. We don’t travel a thousand yards before we see an almost-bright horse skull lying in the tawny weeds. John drives up a gentle slope where the land forms a bowl, and we find two clouds of fur — like horse mirages — amid the rocks, marking the spot where two horses once lay. Only a few feet beyond: a rib cage, a leg bone, a hoof. All over the landscape we find nothing but bones — dragged into bushes, fought over by scavengers, torn up in a feeding frenzy. A column of vertebrae, ivory ribs, a jawbone, an empty eye socket, a row of teeth in a perfect skull. Sometimes, a surprise odor of rot rises from the soil and disappears.

Megan leads me down a narrow path to where the second group of horses was found. She points to the flat area halfway up where Kyle Griffith discovered the first horse. A spine marks the spot.

Several people have told me that the horses should have been buried so the survivors wouldn’t be traumatized. But what happened instead, these bones, feels right. Let them all return to earth. Let them become part of the scarred land. Like the strip mine vanishes beneath the grasses, let nature take over and heal. Let the coyotes and vultures feed. At least their gore has purpose. Unlike those 20 deaths, which can never make sense.

Throughout 2020 my story — this story — is trapped in limbo, unpublishable as the daily crises of 2020 dominate everything. But I can’t escape it. At least once a week, my iPhone or computer perversely selects a gory image of a slaughtered horse as a daily “featured photograph.” I finally beg for help to block future views of the nightmarish corpses.

Tonya Conn tells me the massacre still haunts her. “It hasn’t left me alone at all. I have nightmares about it and see it and worry about it. It doesn’t leave. It’s actually really hard for me to run up the courage to go on a strip job to look at these horses,” she says. “I have to mentally prepare for it. I had to try to put up a barrier, to not be so emotionally involved, because it’s hard to go up there and to not feel that you’re going to see that kind of carnage again.”

I talk again to Detective Shepherd, who says the case is stalled. He hopes a tip may lead to something but counts on nothing. “You would think that the money would roust them out, but it didn’t,” Shepherd says.

Last October, back at El Azul Grande, Maynard says, “We’re not surprised at all. When you turn your back to everything, when you won’t turn in your neighbors for selling drugs and beating their kids in the front yard, you’re not going to turn in somebody shooting an animal.

“It’s somebody that knew that mountain. It’s somebody that had access to that property,” she continues. “You know your kids have played in their yard. You know your kids go to school with them. Your kids go to church with them. That’s the reality. And that’s why it’s so important that we smoke them out…Next time, it might not be a horse. Next time, it might be a kid. Next time, it might be an old lady. Next time, it might be his wife. You know, it’s more terrifying that people are willing to look away. If it were my own brother, I would want to know.”

CANCER SUCKS!

How one man recruited his friends and made more friends and changed the lives of cancer patients and their families forever

By Jenni Laidman

This story was originally published in 2019 in Louisville Magazine. The City and Regional Magazine Association named it the best feature story in its circulation class in its 2020 national awards.

One boy dances. Around him, ball-capped and bearded men shake hands and banter. The women wear shorts, blue jeans, earrings, running shoes, strappy sandals, and they’re all talking or laughing or shouting. People nosh on pretzel-crust pizza or quesadillas or wings. They order beer by the bucketful, and their voices grow louder. Toddlers look around with big eyes, or make faces at a brother, or tap, tap, tap an adult shoulder. A woman in a tank-top stands to beckon friends. A man with a tanned and shining dome hunts for a place at the bar. And a 30-something in ankle-breaker heels weaves through them all, hefting a crate of canned goods. No one watches the dancing boy. He’s off to the side, out of the way, tick-tocking his arms like twin pendulums, hips swinging in the opposite direction, over and over, a joyful moment of dancer’s hypnosis. It’s hard to hear any music in this tumult, but the kid in the dark T-shirt and track pants keeps dancing, a human metronome in his own happy place.

This is Monday night, July 30, 2018, at Khalil’s in Valley Station, a popular South End sports bar and restaurant shoehorned into an undistinguished Dixie Highway strip mall that doesn’t even have its own name on its sign. About every third person who passes Khalil Batshon, the 32-year-old owner, greets him. They call him Charlie, the name he went by until college. Eye-to-eye, Batshon is boyish, with warm dark eyes — at a distance, he looks older with his black goatee and square build. He sprinkles his conversation with positive sayings. Tonight, perhaps because his Monday business is breaking records, he says, “My pastor at church says you got to learn how to receive.”

Later tonight, Batshon will pick up a blade. The room will fall still, waiting to see what happens next. It’s the ritual everyone is here for, holding their breath and hoping to hear their name called. Wes Faust, who works for a credit card processor, is riveted and he hasn’t even bought a ticket for a shot at the money. So is Frankie Story, branch manager at American Mortgage on Dixie Highway, who livestreams the moment to Facebook. Doodle Farris of Farris Plumbing and his buddy Scott Wright of Wright Mechanical, they’re always here. But all that is a few hours away.

The dancing boy suddenly stops, looks around, and races after a tall, bearded guy wearing a black T-shirt that says “Cancer Sucks!” — he’s always wearing something that says “Cancer Sucks!” This may be Batshon’s bar, but the big guy with the close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard, who couldn’t do small talk if you handed him a script, started the party. And he’s been starting one every Monday for weeks. July 30, 2018, marks week 14. His sister Donna Wilkins says, “My brother has the biggest heart. Just like my mom.” Her brother drapes his arm around the dancing boy and heads to the stage. The man’s name is Mike Mulrooney. That’s his youngest child, Graham, beside him, the kind of kid who worries about homeless people he sees on the street. Graham’s grandma Shirley was like that. So is his dad, who cries during movies. “My wife, Jenni, will look at me: ‘Are you all right over there?’ I’ll be the one blubbering.”

Mulrooney’s friends from his Pleasure Ridge Park High School days say that when Mulrooney saw some kid eating by himself in the cafeteria, he’d invite the loner to come sit with him and his friends, the PRP football team. “I don’t like seeing people by themselves,” Mulrooney says. “I just really don’t, ’cause I feel like everybody needs a friend, and if they’re sitting there by themselves, they probably don’t have anybody to hang out with.”

It’s an inheritance of tender hearts. It’s why Mulrooney is here tonight, why he does what he does: turning his South End friends into a volunteer army called Shirley’s Way.

Summerlynn Smothers was five years old when the vomiting started. It was 2013 and she was in kindergarten at Eisenhower Elementary School in PRP. The doctor blamed nerves, saying she probably just missed Mommy. Later, when she threw up in the car, her parents thought it could be motion sickness. Then the lymph nodes under her chin grew swollen and hard. Spring allergies, the doctor decided. Later, the pediatrician said strep throat and prescribed antibiotics. Then a lymph node at the base of her neck on the right side popped out. Stronger antibiotics would fix it, he said. By mid-May, Summerlynn was still sick. A test for mono was negative. So it’s a virus, the physician ruled. Then in June, about two weeks after Summerlynn turned six, another hard, swollen lymph node popped on the other side. John and Ruby, Summerlynn’s parents, who were in their mid-20s, were frantic, insisting on more testing. Everything came back negative. So the physician sent the family to Norton Children’s Hospital downtown for a workup. They were told to report to 7 West. “They didn’t tell us that 7 West was the cancer unit,” John says. The family read it on the ward sign.

The next morning they learned that their little girl had T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, known as T-ALL. Physicians tabulate the success of cancer treatment by the percentage of patients alive five years after diagnosis. The five-year survival rate for this form of leukemia in children is pretty good, at more than 90 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. But nothing prepared the family (including son Hayden, eight at the time) for what followed. Sitting in their small living room a half-mile from Dixie Highway, Ruby Smothers says, “Even to this day, I think: How did we get here? We had such a normal life, and then all of the sudden….”

Kentucky has the highest cancer rate in the nation. In fact, if Kentucky were a country, it would have the highest cancer rate in the world. (Australia is No. 1.) Another dreadful “We’re No. 1”: Kentucky leads the nation in lung and colorectal cancer diagnoses and lung cancer deaths.

States with more people may have more cancer cases, but no state has a greater percentage of its citizens with cancer. To compare populous states like California to nearly empty states like Wyoming, statisticians calculate how many cancer cases occur in each state for every 100,000 people. A 2019 American Cancer Society report showed Kentucky men and boys were diagnosed with cancer 570 times for every 100,000 people. That’s almost 75 cases higher than the national average of 495 diagnoses per 100,000. Women are less likely to get cancer than men, but the Kentucky rate remains heartbreaking and worst in the nation. Among Kentucky women and girls, there are 469 cases per 100,000 — 40 cases more than the national average. Imagine the entire population of Paducah, almost 25,000 people, all diagnosed with cancer. Every year. That’s how many males we’re talking about. To add females to this scene, diagnose everyone in Ashland, a town of 21,000.

And it looks more depressing when you consider cancer deaths. Only in Mississippi do more men and boys die from cancer. Kentucky women lead the nation in cancer deaths. Taken together, the number of people who die from cancer in Kentucky would wipe out a city with a population just shy of St. Matthews’.

Every year.

A bearded guy with a blue University of Kentucky shirt walks up to the table just inside Khalil’s front doors. “I want 49!” he says like a man planting a flag on a new continent. The women running ticket sales look at him evenly. Frankie Story tells him, “You can’t have 49.” But he is insistent. “Whoever picked it, I’ll buy it from them!”

“It’s too late,” Story says. Somebody chose 49 a few weeks ago. Lucky it wasn’t him. Forty-nine was a loser. UK shirt doesn’t like the answer. He wants to know who’s in charge here. Story, with short blond hair and a fair complexion, is formidable at almost six feet tall. She’s also funny. “I’m the boss,” Story tells him, waving her arms as she gains steam. “I’m the boss of the whole world!”

Story knows there’s no time for drama at the ticket table. The line is backing up out the door, and ticket buyers with armloads of canned goods and $20, $40, $100 worth of $2 tickets are crouched over the table scrawling their names, contact info and lucky number on each ticket individually. Handwriting is what the law requires. Penmanship suffers.

By a little after 7 p.m. on July 30, every seat in Khalil’s is taken. A constant parade of chair-free patrons circulates through the restaurant like blood squeezing through sclerotic arteries, clotting along the wall to the kitchen, snagging at the far end of the bar and eddying around the giant blackboard in the back until they’re spit out again by the need for a beer, or a trip to the restroom, or a glimpse of someone they haven’t seen since high school.


Frankie Story knows there’s no time for drama at the ticket table.

The blackboard they hover near is classroom-size, but no classroom chalkboard ever won such attention. Last week it read $38,296 — the crowd loved that. Brisk ticket sales put the amount just above $40,000 by noon today, which brought in even more bettors. The new total reads $43,796, feeding the buzz sweeping the room. If someone wins, they’ll take home half the night’s total. If they’re not here, they get 40 percent. Near the blackboard, Mike Mulrooney’s dad, Mike Sr., turns the crank on a steel-mesh drum filled with this week’s tickets.

The drawing is called the Queen of Hearts, and the rules can be a little confusing for first-timers. Basically: Can you guess which of the 54 cards is the queen of hearts? A locked glass case beside the chalkboard holds the cards, numbered one through 54 (two jokers included), face down, sealed in plastic. For $2 you can choose one of those numbers and write it on a ticket, and there’s no limit on how many tickets you can buy. One ticket is drawn each week. If one with your name on it is pulled from the barrel, the Shirley’s Way team flips the card that corresponds to your number. You only win the money if the card that’s unveiled is the queen of hearts. Not the queen of hearts? That card and its corresponding number are now off the board for future weeks. This week, 13 cards are face up and cannot be played, including No. 49 (the six of clubs from a week or two ago). If nobody wins, all the tickets are thrown away and the betting starts again for the following week. And here’s where it gets interesting: The money accumulates from drawing to drawing. Every new ticket purchase adds $2 to last week’s pot. It adds up quickly.

By 8:17, Batshon shrugs his way through the crush to grab the mic. “Let’s sell another $200 worth of tickets!” he says. One hundred and two tickets would take them to a $45,000. Wendy Barker, a roving ticket seller, stops to make a wish. “I want to see it go to the last day,” she says, meaning the queen of hearts would be the final card revealed. “I want to see it go to $100,000.” The amount seems impossibly large.

At 8:26 p.m., four minutes from the drawing, Mulrooney is at the mic. Ticket sales are closed. Someone has erased the dollar figure on the chalkboard. “Where are we at, Kim?” Mulrooney asks the woman holding the chalk. She shrugs. “Get ready to write the total down.” Men and women carry plastic jars of tickets shoulder-high through the crowd, emptying the contents into the drum before it’s closed for the last time. Mike Sr. turns the crank and the tickets tumble. Someone ushers a little girl in a long blue dress to the back of the restaurant to draw tonight’s ticket.

“Hold on! Hold on! Hold on!” Wes Faust’s voice rises above the din. Six minutes earlier, Shane O’Keefe brought ticket sales to a close. Now, standing onstage behind Mulrooney, he raises his arm to stop the drawing. The girl in the blue dress stands back. Faust rushes through the crowd, a ticket jar above his head, and dumps the last few tickets into the drum. They somersault into the mix as Mike Sr. begins turning again. The new total goes up on the chalkboard: $45,184. The crowd bellows.

Stop here, just for a minute, and notice something. Faust, vice president of Shirley’s Way, who can talk to anyone about anything, has known Mulrooney since grade school. O’Keefe, who keeps track of the money on these Monday nights, is Mulrooney’s neighbor, but they’ve also known each other since they were kids. So many people in this crowd have known Mulrooney for years, sometimes decades.

“I work with Mike’s wife, Jenni.”

“I’ve probably known him for like 30 years.”

“I played softball with Mike years ago.”

“I’m friends with Mike Mulrooney, and I used to do his mom’s nails.”

“He coached my daughter.”

“I did a job for Mike and found out that we have a million mutual friends.”

Mike Sr. thinks he knows what’s going on here. “This could only happen in the South End,” he says. Maybe. But it’s probably less geography and more like six degrees of separation — or actually, one or two degrees — in action. The power of networks. The power of friendship. The wheel of connections created by one guy who couldn’t stand hearing sad stories: Mike Mulrooney.

The barrel stops. The little girl in the blue dress looks at the ceiling and reaches deep into the drum. She draws a ticket that travels hand to hand to Mulrooney, who stands with his arm around Graham. Batshon unlocks the case of cards. Mulrooney reads the name on tonight’s ticket, followed by the number — 21. Batshon picks up a blade. The crowd grows quiet. He slices the plastic around card No. 21 and flips it over to reveal — a 10 of diamonds.

Nobody wins!

The cheering is the loudest of the night.

“So it carries over to next Monday!” Mulrooney yells. “You can start buying your tickets now.”

Mike Mulrooney, now 49, never thought about cancer until his mother, Shirley, was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2011. “I really didn’t anticipate anything coming from it. You just don’t think that today somebody should die from cancer,” he says. In fact, when a doctor told the family that Shirley’s treatment options were limited and the prospect for recovery dim, Mulrooney got mad. “I didn’t believe him,” he says. “I told him he didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Mulrooney put out a call on social media looking for another oncologist, and the family ended up at James Graham Brown Cancer Center, where physicians sounded far more optimistic. But the cheer wore thin as the months rolled on. “Treatment after treatment after treatment and we weren’t gaining anything,” he says. Each new approach seemed like a guess, an experiment. Maybe this will work. Maybe that will. “Finally, one day the doctor walked in and he said, ‘There’s nothing else we can do,’ and turned right around and walked out. And we’re just standing there.”

Shirley Mulrooney came home to die. And that’s when the truth about having cancer in America came home to her son.

Shirley was the type to cry at sad movies and put her hand over her mouth in distress when a tragic story hit the evening news. Nearly every kid who attended St. Paul’s Catholic School on Dixie Highway remembers her from her years as a bus driver, before the school eliminated buses and she went to work for Humana. People knew her from St. Paul’s Catholic Church, where she was a lifelong member. They knew her through her three kids, Donna, the oldest, Mike in the middle and Lynn, the baby. “She was always cooking for people. If someone was sick, she’d take them soup,” Mike Mulrooney says. “She would make cookies and take them to the neighbors.” Carrot cake was her specialty. People asked her to bring it to family events. She liked to go to funerals and talk to people. “She was the mom of the ’60s and ’70s, the Beaver Cleaver-mom type,” Mulrooney says. So as she grew sicker, everyone wanted to visit. And the visitors told stories.

Mulrooney couldn’t believe what he was hearing as he ushered guests out of his mother’s room, trying to protect her from hearing anything bleak. “They were telling me of friends and family that had cancer or some other life-threatening disease, and they couldn’t work, and couldn’t pay their bills,” he says. Visitors talked about friends choosing between life-saving medication and food, between paying a medical bill and making a mortgage payment. They talked about homes lost and treatments skipped because it all cost too much. How could this be? Mulrooney couldn’t stop thinking about it. All that money raised for cancer research — millions in tax dollars and donations — and people had to go broke to reap the results of what their taxes had, in part, made possible?

For two years Shirley struggled with an illness that made her son wonder why God would let a church-going woman who took care of others suffer so. She died March 5, 2013. She was 63.

As her body was wheeled out to the hearse, Mulrooney leaned over, kissed her on the forehead and made a silent promise. “I didn’t know what we were gonna do,” he says, “but I promised her we would do something.”

Summerlynn’s initial treatment failed. What was to be a week in the hospital stretched into a month. Her dad, John, missed work several days to be at the hospital with his wife and daughter. The couple tried to keep up with a confusing round of discussions about Summerlynn’s care. They hardly knew what to think. One doctor advocated more aggressive therapy; the other doctors outvoted him. The doctors asked the parents, “What do you think?” John was taken aback: “Well, I think you have the medical degree, so we’re going to go with the majority.” It’s a decision they’d come to regret. Still, by September 2014, Summerlynn’s cancer was in remission. They hardly had time to celebrate when, in October, a round of high-dose chemotherapy damaged Summerlynn’s kidneys. What was supposed to be a day in the hospital stretched beyond a week. Among the kidney’s many duties is the regulation of blood pressure. Summerlynn’s was elevated, so she was put on blood pressure medicine. She was six years old.

Her doctors said the next best step was bone marrow transplantation, which uses radiation and high-dose chemotherapy to wipe out the faulty blood-making cells in Summerlynn’s bone marrow. Those would be replaced with donated placenta/umbilical cord blood cells, which would rebuild her immune system and blood supply. After a quick consult at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where doctors agreed that a transplant was the way to go, the family went forward with the procedure at Norton Children’s.

It began the worst year yet in the life of this small family.

Although Summerlynn was scheduled to begin stem cell treatment Jan. 15, 2015, problems with her lungs delayed the process until March 3, when she finally began the regimen that would destroy her immune system and blood-forming cells. On March 12, she received the new cells, and a month later, she was back home. But there was little sense of victory. Not only did she test positive for a “superbug” called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae — a difficult-to-treat and often deadly bacteria that doesn’t respond to most antibiotics — she was plagued by viruses and other infections that kept the family running back to the hospital. By July, her condition had so deteriorated that she was admitted to Norton Children’s for what turned out to be the rest of the year.

And it got worse. She developed a pair of blood-related disorders associated with transplantation, each of which caused life-threatening blood clots. Ultimately, the clots destroyed her kidney function, and by the end of August, she was on dialysis thrice weekly. The disorders caused fluid to build up inside the sac that holds the heart and lungs. The pressure collapsed a lung. The clotting covered her in bruises. Her arms were matchsticks. She couldn’t walk. She could hardly sit up.

On Oct. 11 Summerlynn’s mom asked a friend to stay with their daughter in pediatric intensive care so they could have a special 10th birthday with Hayden, who had been living with his grandparents through most of this. Throughout the day, the friend noticed Summerlynn was unusually quiet. The friend was worried, even though the medical staff told her it might be the results of sedation the day before, or due to throat pain from a recent bronchoscopy. When Ruby returned to the hospital later that day, Summerlynn wasn’t talking. Instead, her eyes roamed the room, back and forth, back and forth, tracking nothing.

“Something is really wrong,” Ruby told the medical staff. They tried to reassure her. Finally, she called 7 West and asked a nurse who knew Summerlynn to have a look. Two 7 West nurses confirmed that this child was not at all herself, but a CT scan revealed nothing. Summerlynn remained immobile and weirdly silent. She was barely blinking. The following morning, an oncologist ordered an MRI and other tests. The odd eye movements were seizure symptoms. The MRI showed something on her brain. Her spinal fluid was bloody. Together these added up to an immune system in revolt with another life-threatening disease called hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. It had turned her immune T-cells and natural killer cells into enemies, and they were laying siege to her brain.

When Summerlynn finally pulled through — she didn’t speak again until Halloween — she was a different child. “We say she went away,” Ruby says. “Wherever she was for that amount of time, she came back different.” This was a kid who would shoot marshmallows at the nurses who visited her in isolation. “She was always dancing around, acting goofy,” John says.

The month after Summerlynn’s transplant, John lost his job. At first, he’d taken advantage of the Family Medical Leave Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave while protecting the worker’s job. But when those three months ended, little grace remained. The company where he worked almost 10 years let him go. The family was already in debt. The medical insurance John purchased through work for $100 a week had never been adequate, carrying an annual $5,000 deductible and copays. They couldn’t keep up: mortgage payments, car payments, utility payments went unpaid. Then there were the medical bills and the prescriptions Summerlynn needed to live.

If work had no grace for the Smotherses, the South End did. A woman they didn’t even know named Jessica Stottman heard about Summerlynn and sponsored a yard sale for her. The woman lives on Mike Sr.’s street. Mulrooney saw what was going on and gave the woman a check for the family. And then he really got involved.

“They paid our house payment for a year,” says John, who now works at Ford. They made sure Summerlynn had all her prescriptions. They gave the family gift cards for Panera, the grocery store and Papa John’s. “They made sure we had presents for the kids for Christmas,” Ruby says. “If Summerlynn’s birthday was coming up, they made sure she had gifts to open. Last year (Mulrooney) showed up at our house; he found out everything she wanted to do for her birthday” — dinner at the Outback Steakhouse, a visit to the Build-A-Bear Workshop — “and he came with gift cards for all of it.

“We wouldn’t have our house if Shirley’s Way hadn’t stepped in,” Ruby says.

“They covered everything, basically,” John says.

When Mulrooney was still a student at U of L pursuing a degree in business management and working nights at UPS, he started a computer business. It was a surprising decision for a guy with no interest in or knowledge of computers. It was an even more unlikely choice because the former PRP classmate who suggested they go into business together wasn’t really anyone Mulrooney liked much. Mulrooney just happened to run into him at the grocery store and they got to talking. And, to make it a trifecta of cockeyed ideas, the business plan depended on a third guy who wouldn’t be a partner, even though he was the only one who actually knew anything about computers. The third man would do the repair work. This was in the early 1990s. While today you need not know much of anything to own and operate a computer successfully, in the 1990s, you made a commitment to at least glancing knowledge of what lurked under the plastic cover of your big desktop machine. Mulrooney knew less than that. “I didn’t even know how to load Windows on a computer,” he says.

So of course the two men signed a one-year, $900-per-month lease on a Shively storefront, and River City Computers was born. And almost died. Two weeks after they opened, the guy with computer knowledge split. “It was mess,” Mulrooney says. While his partner took on the sales side, Mulrooney bought every book he could find about computers and started reading. He also dropped out of school. (It would take him 10 years to earn his degree.) “People would come in and say, ‘Oh, I got to have the RAM updated,’” he says. “I’d go to the library trying to figure out what RAM was, what ROM was, and hard drives….”

Then he found a lifeline. Several actually: 800 numbers. “Back then, you could call an 800 number on any computer, and they would walk you through stuff,” he says. “I’d call the 800 number and act like I knew what I was doing. ‘Hey, I got some memory I’ve got to put in this machine, and for the life of me, I can’t see where it goes.’” While he kept reading and learning, he forged connections with technical-assistance departments at every major personal computer company. “I had relationships with these people on these 800 numbers, and they would know me when I’d call,” he says.

With a combination of native intelligence, a willingness to work and an ability to make personal connections, Mulrooney created a career in technology — a field infamous (in myth at least) for attracting the socially stunted. Because of it, the partners renewed the lease on their storefront for a second year. Today, Mulrooney works in IT for Brown-Forman. And he’s still making connections.

In her black dress with peek-a-boo shoulders and her mother’s gold hoop earrings, Kellye Duckworth may be the most elegantly attired woman in Khalil’s on Nov. 26. A few hours earlier, she wore this to her mother’s funeral. At noon, they buried Patty Fields right across Dixie Highway in Bethany Memorial Cemetery. From the cemetery the family could see the Gene Snyder Expressway and a Miller Lite truck making its way west, fulfilling Patty Fields’ prediction that, when she died, there’d be a procession of Miller Lite trucks to mark her passing.

Now the cousins, aunts and uncles are buying Miller Lites in her honor. They slowly make their way through the throngs jamming Khalil’s, heading to the stage area. At 6 p.m., it’s too late to hope for a seat. By the time the family has hugged everyone they know and waited for a clear path, the better part of a half-hour has passed. The place is a madhouse.

All day things have been popping at Khalil’s. At 10 a.m., ticket buyers began streaming in to buy Queen of Hearts tickets — 3,000 sold in two hours. Around 3 p.m., people started occupying tables for friends and family who couldn’t get out of work early. By 6 p.m., finding parking is near impossible. A few desperate people pull in at Cracker Barrel nearby — a practice that soon brings towing threats. Near the stage, Mike Sr. cranks a new ticket drum, this one Plexiglas, the barrel about three feet in diameter. It can hold 30,000 tickets. The old steel-mesh unit can no longer handle weekly ticket volume. That one was actually the second drum the Queen of Hearts raffle has used. They never expected to outgrow it. But they’ve outgrown everything — and even, almost, Khalil’s. By mid-October, people were watching the drawing from their cars in the parking lot because they couldn’t get in. So when the little thrift shop next door went belly up, Khalil’s expanded. They cut a doorway between the two spaces, spruced up the addition, put up a long table for ticket sales, and, presto, 100 more seats. The new room lacks the ambiance of the main dining room — no dark walls, no bar signs, no lineup of televisions. It looks, instead, like a fine place for a church supper. But 10 bucks guarantees a buffet dinner and seating. And something else is different tonight. Many tables are covered with growing drifts of paper scraps — the remnants of $1 pull-tab games Mulrooney says aren’t much of a moneymaker, though customers like them to pass the time.

The real attraction remains the chalkboard, which has reached $360,612. As 8:30 approaches, Mulrooney takes the stage and directs the crowd’s attention to Duckworth and her family standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the stage. “Raise a glass,” Mulrooney tells the crowd.

Raise a glass to Patty Fields. Patty Fields, the life of the party, the longtime bartender at Tumbleweed in Shively. “Pattilicous,” her friends called her. “The funniest person I ever met,” her own sister says. Patty, the main wage earner and mortgage payer for her little family. Patty, whose family nearly lost everything when she was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer.

Although Fields didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t work after her diagnosis, at first she found help: food stamps, disability income and Medicaid. Then the government changed its mind about the food stamps because 18-year-old Kellye Duckworth’s two-day-a-week job as a Tumbleweed server brought in too much money. And then Duckworth was told she’d have to move because her income threatened Patty’s Medicaid eligibility. Then a nearly $50,000 balloon payment came due on Fields’ home loan. Then — actually, right after food stamps began and the family had its first full fridge in forever — the refrigerator gave out with everything in it. “And the next thing you know, we get a thing in the mail, a little letter from Mike and a hundred-dollar gift card from Kroger,” Duckworth says. Shirley’s Way covered several thousand dollars in house payments. It paid for good secondhand appliances.

Duckworth, then a student at the University of Louisville, had planned to marry in 2019, after graduation. But as her mother’s illness worsened, she and Drew Duckworth moved up the date by a year. The high school sweethearts were married June 2, 2018. Patty died Nov. 21. Shirley’s Way sponsored a fundraiser so the family could buy a headstone.

If you were treated for cancer in 1995, it took about $54,000 to keep you alive for a year, a study published in July in the Journal of Surgical Oncology reports. In 2013, that year of life costs almost four times as much — $207,000. There’s no published data on what a year of cancer care costs now, six years later. You can bet it hasn’t gone down.

The cost of cancer care is not only growing, it’s life-threatening.

Drug pricing is part of the problem. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves a new drug, studies show companies base the price on drugs already on the market — plus 10 percent to 20 percent. In 2012, 11 of 12 new cancer drugs approved by the FDA cost more than $100,000 per year. There’s no overall data on what new cancer drugs cost today, but one website that covers the pharmacy market reported that a new drug for lymphoma has a U.S. list price of $373,000. The list price for its use in acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children and young adults is $475,000.

After a new drug launches, the Surgical Oncology authors report, its inflation-adjusted price rises about 5 percent a year. The price goes up again — typically another 10 percent this time if the FDA approves its use for another form of cancer. The only time the cost goes down is if the FDA OKs a competing product. But the drop is only 2 percent.

And drugs are only part of the picture.

Hospital costs, this study found, account for 48 percent of the total medical bill, compared with, say, the 16 percent share going to chemotherapy.

An astonishing number of people faced with the cost of cancer lose everything. An October study in theAmerican Journal of Medicine reported that more than 42 percent of people diagnosed with cancer from 2000 to 2012 wiped out their life savings in two years. That’s more than four million people, and this study looked only at those age 50 and older.

When the cost of cancer care hammers patients and their families, it’s called financial toxicity. Financial toxicity is most often a disease that hits young people, women, people of color, people who live far from treatment centers and the unemployed. Younger people are vulnerable because they’re often under-insured, have lower-paying jobs and have higher non-medical expenses, such as child care. Their cancers are also treated more aggressively, and that’s more costly. Although the burden falls hardest on the uninsured, deductibles and copays overwhelm even some insured cancer patients.

Patients who face financial hardship are more likely to delay or skip treatment. They miss car payments, utility payments, meals, tuition. Bankruptcies increase. Cancer patients are 2.5 times more likely to declare bankruptcy than their peers. A study of 900 bankruptcies published earlier this year in the American Journal of Public Health showed illness-related expenses — both the cost of care and work lost during illness — were important contributors to two out of three bankruptcies. Who’s filing for these bankruptcies? Often it’s middle-class people with health insurance. And here’s a chilling fact: Those driven to bankruptcy have twice the risk of dying compared with cancer patients who avoid bankruptcy, theJournal of Surgical Oncology reports.

This doubled risk of death hits no matter the type of cancer involved or how early it’s caught, a study in theJournal of Internal Medicine reports. The financial burden functions like a diagnosis for a second deadly disease atop the cancer. Not only does cancer kill, so does the cost of treating it.

Spencer Moorman knows what this looks like. She sees it in the eyes of the moms and dads she talks to every day. Moorman is a social worker with University of Louisville Physicians Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders. She works with the families of cancer patients in Norton Children’s Hospital. It’s her job to try to catch these families before they fall, to hook them up with resources, to make sure they can get their car fixed to get to treatment, can pay their rent so they don’t end up homeless, can keep the lights and water on and buy groceries. It’s often a frustrating scramble.

“There are so many needs that it’s overwhelming,” she says. “It’s beyond comparison for those who haven’t lived it, but we’ve seen families who were hardworking and middle class who then lost their homes because of the cancer diagnosis.”

Although nonprofits exist to help cancer patients, most have broad restrictions on who they will help, Moorman says. Some organizations help only people with one type of cancer, or in one part of the country, or at one stage of diagnosis. Many require families to fill out complicated applications, submit W2s and paystubs and photographs and a letter at a time when families are already overwhelmed by what they have to deal with every day.

Then, about five years ago, Moorman heard about Shirley’s Way. Although at the outset Shirley’s Way found patients through friends, today families who need help apply through hospital social workers, who help determine real need. “Shirley’s Way has been such an invaluable resource because they make it easy,” Moorman says. “They do require certain forms to be filled out, but it’s not this intensive process that other organizations might require.” Oncology social workers all over town tell the same story: Shirley’s Way is a game-changer.

It’s after dark at Sportsdrome Speedway in Jeffersonville, Indiana, Aug. 18, 2018. As one race ends and the Dopplering whine of cars on the figure-eight track vanishes, Scott Wright resumes talking about the car he and Doodle Farris built from nothing. It gleams under the work lights, sleek black with red-orange 48s painted on the doors, the numbers leaning rearward, caught in the wind of anticipated speed. There isn’t a piece of metal or a part on this car that Wright and Farris haven’t handled, right down to the twin “Cancer Sucks!” Shirley’s Way logos on either side of the hood. All over the track, cars display the logo, maybe 20 of the vehicles racing tonight.

Wright and Farris, who put $50,000 into the car, don’t keep their winnings. They give it all to Shirley’s Way. “You don’t make a ton of money doing this,” Wright says. “So we kind of have fun and help out.” Part of their inspiration is Wright’s father, Tom, who died of leukemia about nine years ago. Tom Wright got the two started in racing, back when they lived across the street from each other and raced go-karts. Now the racers have turned their competitors into Shirley’s Way believers, a few of them also donating at least some of their winnings to Shirley’s Way. “Most have been affected by cancer, so they all know,” Wright says.

Before the Queen of Hearts, Shirley’s Way survived solely on things like this: interested friends, glow-in-the-dark golf scrambles, small concerts with local musicians, poker runs, T-shirt sales and several 5K races, along with the sponsorship of a few South End businesses: Wright Mechanical, Leanhart Plumbing, real estate agent Diana Davis, Plumbers Supply and MaxCare Professional Cleaning Systems. Although Shirley’s Way now has three part-time employees — handling most of the paperwork, patient advocacy and Shirley’s Way merchandise — everything else is volunteer-powered. On Queen of Hearts nights, no fewer than 15 volunteers swing into action. Even with the volunteer army — and each board member takes responsibility for a fundraising event, too — Mulrooney still has to go out out a few nights a week and sometimes during the day for Shirley’s Way. “I got a family to take care of, too, so it gets a little intrusive, but I enjoy it,” he says. (In addition to Graham, 10, he has two daughters: Kayden, a sophomore at Atherton High School, and 12-year-old Addie, who attends Notre Dame Academy.)

What the organization lacks is big donors. For all his connections, Mulrooney has no rich associates, no influence with a charitable granting agency, no national sponsorships. All those things are on his wish list, but he’s still figuring out how to do it. “We got to find a money tree somewhere,” he says.

Vicki Guffey and her family are at Khalil’s on Feb. 4, 2019, for what has become a family ritual since Queen of Hearts was three weeks old. Her husband Will arrives at 3 p.m., saves two tables in the new room, and spends the afternoon visiting with neighbors and playing pull-tab games. By 7:30 p.m., every table in the extra room is full and people bustle to the buffet to fill their plates. Yet compared to the main restaurant, it’s a church service in here. Out there, beach balls bounce like frantic punctuation, batted from table to table as the wait staff tries to find a path through the melee. Khalil Batshon takes to a bullhorn: “Clear the aisles! Clear the aisles!”

The total on the blackboard tonight is up above $700,000.

Mike Mulrooney, Miller Lite in hand, looks around the room. “It’s insane,” he says. He’s getting a weird vibe. “I’ve been thinking about it all day. I really just have that odd feeling it’s going out tonight.” A woman standing nearby overhears and hollers, “Yeah! And I’m gonna win!”

To the Shirley’s Way team, it sometimes feels like the rest of the city is sleeping through the excitement and the urgency. By the end of 2018, the South End organization had donated $563,000 to cancer patients since 2014, helping some 209 families all over Metro Louisville and a few beyond. Because of Queen of Hearts revenue, most of that giving — $287,635 — took place in 2018. Queen of Hearts participants have donated blankets, cases of food, personal care items, peanut butter and cheese crackers for school teachers to give to hungry students, books, pet food and winter coats. They’ve given so much they filled Southwest Community Ministry’s food pantry. Support for Shirley’s Way is strong in the South End. Up and down Dixie Highway you can see “Cancer Sucks!” bumper stickers in every parking lot. You see support at Timmy’s Auto Wash, at Christie’s Cafe, at Thornhill’s Batting Cages. Wright Mechanical displays the logo on all of its trucks.

On this night there’s a new sound, a mix between an airplane taking off and a machine gun’s rapid fire. It’s the new ticket drum. Queen of Hearts outgrew its Plexiglas drum last week, and the metal fabricators at Carrier Vibrating Equipment Inc. built and donated this new steel monster, complete with the Shirley’s Way logo painted on the front. Batshon now works the crank on the drum, throwing his whole body into it as Mulrooney addresses the crowd.

“Today’s World Cancer Day,” Mulrooney says from the stage crowded with people. Volunteers hold up signs for the sponsoring businesses. Mulrooney continues: “I don’t know what you do on World Cancer Day. It’s not something I want to celebrate, but what we’re gonna do, if you’ve got a drink — if you’re drinking beer, whiskey, whatever you got — hold it up for me real quick.”

The crowd hoots while around the room the beer glasses and bottles rise like torches, amber ornaments in the TV screen light.

“Here’s to World Cancer Day!” Mulrooney shouts. “On three, cancer sucks.”

“One!”

“Two!”

“Three!”

“Cancer Sucks!” they holler.

“Amen,” Mulrooney says.

A few miles away, Summerlynn Smothers, now 11, is at home, trying out new jobs on PlayStation VR. Chef is her favorite virtual-reality profession — and she likes to cook in real life too. Life will soon be a bit easier as her parents learn how to administer peritoneal dialysis at home, eliminating the nuisance of regular trips to a dialysis center. All over the city, people are whole because of Shirley’s Way. Tammy Hart, with stage 3 colon cancer, still has her apartment, and on good nights can still see the local bands she loves. Jeff Williams, a nurse and the former drummer with Naked Garden, can help raise his daughter, two-year-old Cathreen. Allan Loney, who lost the love of his life, Elaine, to breast cancer in 2017, and lost his job during his wife’s long treatment, was able to keep his house for his children.

By 8:20 p.m. ticket sales have ended. The blackboard reads $773,800. Mulrooney keeps glancing at his watch, waiting for 8:30. Back in the buffet room, Vickie Guffey says that if she and her husband win, they’re taking the family to Disneyland. Anna Settle, a teacher and Guffey’s daughter, says she’ll buy a house or pay off her student loans. Amy Sturgeon, out front of Khalil’s where the smokers gather, has been coming to Queen of Hearts for only three weeks. She usually bets $20. Tonight, she splurged at $30. “That’s all I had — my last dime.” Ashley Mattingly, 22, buys 40 tickets every week. If she wins, she might buy a new truck. “And I want to give back,” she says.

Mulrooney checks his watch again, just as Batshon opens the ticket drum. Batshon hesitates at the open door as Mulrooney shouts, “Thirty seconds!” Mulrooney keeps his eye on his watch, beginning the countdown at 10 seconds. “Nine, 8, 7…come on!” The crowd finishes with him.

“Let’s draw this ticket!” Mulrooney shouts.

Without fanfare, Batshon reaches into the drum and comes up with a ticket, holding it in the air as he walks in a tight circle — living up to the occasional “Vanna White” teasing he gets. As he lowers the ticket, Frankie Story is right beside him. Together, they examine the name and the number on it, then carry it to the blackboard where attorney Joe Blandford, who may be the only guy here in a crisp white shirt, waits. Blandford wears his frameless glasses halfway down his nose, but he still needs to use the flashlight on his cellphone to illuminate the writing.

“Anybody nervous?” Mulrooney asks as Blandford, Story and Batshon agree about the name and number on the ticket — a step they added a few weeks ago when Mulrooney misread a ticket. Mulrooney has his reading glasses on as Terry Hall, a Shirley’s Way board member, passes the ticket to him and whispers what the others found. Mike extends his arm its full length and draws it in again to read the ticket.

“Leslie Duncan!” he shouts. “Is Leslie Duncan here?” Duncan’s card is No. 35 — one of 14 remaining cards — so Story, livestreaming for Facebook watchers, focuses in on No. 35. Mulrooney waits a few minutes for Duncan to appear, and then he’s done waiting. “Let’s see what’s under card 35.”

The card box is open and Batshon uses a box cutter to painstakingly slice into the plastic that seals each card. He peeks at the card’s bottom corner and turns toward Story, who moves closer with her camera for the reveal. Every person jammed in behind her leans in too, trying to see what comes next.

“Is it red?” Mulrooney asks.

Batshon flips the card. Two people scream, and Batshon turns to Mulrooney with an “I’ve got a secret” smile.

“It’s the Queen of Hearts!” Mulrooney shouts.

There’s a collective gasp and some screaming before the crowd roars and applauds. Confetti drops from somewhere. Mulrooney looks shocked. The crowd actually sounds a bit disappointed. Mulrooney shakes his head and yells, “Nobody’s cheering for Leslie Duncan? Give it up for Leslie Duncan!”

And they do.

She’ll take home $309,000, 40 percent of the pot — as opposed to 50 percent — because she isn’t here for the drawing.

Two weeks later, it all starts again. This time, the rules change: You don’t have to be at Khalil’s to win half the pot, and you can win as much as $500 just for having your ticket pulled from the drum. On July 8, someone wins that pot when it reaches $102,662. And the following week, it starts over again, with Shirley’s Way seeding the pot with $10,000.

The punch-cards Mulrooney once dismissed as a revenue source now look like they may be the money tree he’s been looking for. By mid-summer, with the approval of the Kentucky Gaming Commission, Shirley’s Way opens a digital punch-card gaming room in what was formerly the overflow room for Queen of Hearts. Shirley’s Way offices move into the space as well, and a new chapter begins in the dream of one man who knows how to make friends and cannot bear to hear a sad story.

Behind it all are life lessons from one quiet woman, a woman devoted to her family, who liked to make carrot cake and especially loved its sweet icing, who helped her neighbors, who showered attention and affection on her grandkids, who was sad when the news was sad and happy when it was happy.

One night during Queen of Hearts, Shirley Mulrooney’s widower, Mike Sr., looks around the room, sees all the shirts emblazoned with his wife’s name, and shakes his head. “She would be very embarrassed,” he says, trying not to choke up. “Yes she would.”

This version of the story does not include the wonderful photographs Mickie Winters took for this story. To see Mickie’s work, please go to https://archive.louisville.com/content/shirleys-way-cancer-support-nonprofit-south-end-louisville. To see more of Mickie’s work, go to mickiewinters.com

Mike Mulrooney, who founded Shirley’s Way to help cancer patients and their families pay their bills.

What the Groundhog Saw

Artist Patrick Donley found himself digging deeper when his tenant began unearthing antiques in the basement.

By Jenni Laidman

This story originally appeared in Louisville Magazine in 2019

Patrick Donley thinks he might’ve pissed off the groundhog. “I’ve tried to be really nice,” he says. But the groundhog would have to be blind to miss Donley’s disruptive encroachment on her territory. In any event, she brought this on herself. She could have picked somewhere other than the basement of his Germantown studio to create her network of tunnels. If it weren’t for her mining ops, Donley would still be painting.

When I visit in mid-July, Donley’s Louisville City FC T-shirt is already sweat-soaked, and his face is damp under graying curls and a ball cap from his alma mater, Davidson College in North Carolina. He apologizes for not turning on the AC earlier in the space where he used to paint. Several canvases are underway, each featuring some version of the weighty spheres that hover through his work, magically afloat yet lassoed by gravity. Marks on one canvas show what he planned to work on next, but that was back in April, before the takeover of Phyllis the groundhog — named for the better-known, weather-predicting Punxsutawney Phil.

Donley used to see Phyllis scurrying under the fence to the house next door, never thinking about where she came from. He found the answer in April while searching his basement for a pup tent. He seldom had reason to enter the dark space with its cracked and tilting concrete slab floor, but on that trip he noticed dirt pushed out from under one of the broken floor slabs. “I thought, ‘That’s odd,’” Donley says. “I got a flashlight and started walking around.” He found an old Falls City beer bottle with embossed glass lettering that was common in the early 20th century. Then he found an old beer bottle from Dubuque, Iowa, followed by an intact aqua-colored medicine bottle with raised glass letters advertising Piso’s Cure — a mid- to late-19th century quack nostrum for tuberculosis that, at various times, contained opium, morphine, hashish, marijuana, chloroform and alcohol. Donley’s Piso’s bottle contained nothing. Nothing but promise for what lay beneath it. “So that got me kind of crazy,” he says. “I started looking around in all the holes and noticed where the gopher’d been digging, and I started raking the dirt and finding all this broken stuff. And then the intact stuff — the amount of intact stuff was starting to freak me out. Then I found the handguns” — what Donley thinks might be old cap guns. He has three of these relics, their shape unmistakable, their details corroded into rusted lumps.

By July, his studio is overrun by his almost daily discoveries: intact round-bottomed soda bottles, tarnished metal tools, an ancient Ball jar, flasks that say “Merry Christmas,” a Hirsch’s pickle jug, a Rue de la Cloche No. 4711 cologne bottle, the china face of a baby doll and then, in the mud packed into the back of her face, two blue glass eyes. And Donley finds bones. Lots and lots of (he hopes) animal bones. He ponders the art he’ll create from all the broken bits. He has discovered all the pieces of several china plates and crockery bowls and plans to fix them using the Japanese technique of kintsugi — literally golden (kin) repair (tsugi) — which employs gold dust and lacquer to make broken items more beautiful than the originals. He isn’t sure how he’ll share the intact finds.

The basement has wholly given way to the treasure hunt. In many places Donley has smashed concrete sections with a sledgehammer to reveal dirt, and every bit of it bears more surprises. “I started with just a little hole, and stuff just started pouring out,” he says. He exposed brick in one part of the basement. “And when I did that some debris fell down and out came another malted milk bottle. I’m not even working for it! There it is! Horlick’s malted milk!”

He reaches into a hole and taps on a tin bucket lodged firmly in the earth.

“It sounds empty,” I say.

“Or full of goodies,” Donley replies. He’s almost gleeful, like a kid estimating his Halloween haul on a street where every porch light is on.

From city records, Donley has determined that the former warehouse was built in 1922 by Herman Poll, who owned the saloon a few doors down. Before that, Donley surmises, his lot contained a natural sinkhole used as a neighborhood dump. Some have speculated he might have unearthed a cistern (such water-storage receptacles often deliver urban archeological finds), but he thinks his trove is too extensive to have been a cistern or a privy, another source of old stuff. “It’s a thousand square feet, and I’m finding stuff in every corner,” he says. At this point, some of his digging is three feet below grade, with no signs of diminished treasures.

Phyllis remains a tenant, but less active, more cautious. Donley has a video of her from earlier this summer, hopping around with plastic sheeting in her mouth, unperturbed by his presence. Then he accidentally broke through one of her tunnels. The next day, the hole was filled. “There were furious little digging marks,” Donley says. “She was annoyed.” Phyllis now keeps her distance. She probably wouldn’t like it if she knew he isn’t anywhere near finished. “Several people have asked me, ‘When do you stop?’” Donley says. “I don’t know. I’m kind of obsessed.”

This version of the story does not include the artful and inspiring photographs of Joon Kim, which were published with the original. To see those photos, visit https://archive.louisville.com/content/groundhog-basement-patrick-donley-germantown-louisville. To see more of Joon Kim’s work, visit studiojoon.com

The Birds And The Trees

BY Jenni Laidman

published 2019 in Louisville Magazine

For the fourth time since Clay Bliznick’s 6 a.m. arrival at moonlit Wyandotte Park, just south of Churchill Downs, his phone sounds a tiny alarm. “I’m one person who’s terrified of sleeping in,” he says, turning off the electronic music. “I set an alarm on my phone for like every five minutes.” He’s usually good about waking without this obsessive prompting, but lately he’s lucky to get more than four hours of sleep. Cue Neil Sedaka: Waking up is hard to do.

A sticker in Bliznick’s rear window tells his life story: “Eat. Sleep. Bird.” A few weeks ago, he spent 10 days in Florida driving from one promising birding site to another and sleeping in his car. It was a solitary trip — probably a good thing considering his shower schedule: He took one. As he has all summer, Bliznick always arrives at his first South End bird-watching site just before sunup. His graduate adviser at Murray State University has randomly placed 140 sites throughout the city’s South End neighborhoods. Over the course of the summer, he’ll visit each site three times by taking in 10 every morning.

At 6:08 a.m., still too dark to see, he points a range finder toward the house where he just heard the high-pitched toodle of a talkative Carolina wren. He’s measuring the little brown bird’s direction and distance from where he stands. A Harley rumbles by, yet Bliznick hears a song sparrow. And a couple of robins. And cardinals. He catches the buzzy sound of a nighthawk soaring over the sleeping neighborhood, where kitchen windows begin to glow amber from incandescent lights inside.

Moments later, he’s back in his nine-year-old Kia Rio with 218,239 miles on it. Earlier this year, when he finished a bat survey one night — it’s why he doesn’t get much sleep — he ran over something on the Gene Snyder that sliced open the car’s fuel tank. The Green Heart project loaned him a car while his was being repaired.

The Green Heart project is why he’s gathering data on birds, bugs, butterflies and bats. In October, the project will begin planting trees — big-growing trees, mostly — in many of these neighborhoods. Aruni Bhatnagar, the University of Louisville mastermind of this unprecedented research, intends to determine if more trees in a neighborhood improve residents’ cardiovascular health. But beneath the umbrella of this multi-million-dollar study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Nature Conservancy, are many smaller studies, including this one to determine if greening changes avian, insect and bat populations. Over eight weeks, Bliznick will record more than 9,000 birds representing 54 species. In a year or two, someone will repeat the survey to see if and in what ways the species mix has changed.

At Faywood Way and Schneiter Avenue, Bliznick, a Green Heart black hat jammed atop his abundant brown curls, furiously works to keep up with all the birds: Downy woodpeckers, house sparrows, robins, chimney swifts and even a barn swallow overhead — only the third time he has seen one at these sites. After bird site No. 10, Bliznick stops for a quick breakfast before beginning his insect survey under a hot sun at the same 10 sites. With a modified leaf blower, he vacuums up bugs on a square of someone’s lawn. It’s noisy work, drowning out the birds and the traffic. Bliznick shoves the bugs in preservative and heads to the next stop. With any luck, he’ll get a nap this afternoon before it’s time to hunt for bats.

This originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Eat. Sleep. Bird.”

Titmouse and chickadees, watercolor by Dorothy Laidman, my mom.

Audiobook reviews: The Book of Dust; Turtles All the Way Down; The Midnight Line

Dust, Turtles, MidnightJenni Laidman
Chicago Tribune
Nov. 20, 2017

“The Midnight Line” by Lee Child, narrated by Dick Hill, Random House Audio, 13 hours, 6 minutes

Dick Hill is Jack Reacher for audiobook fans. Hill narrated the last 18 of the 22 books in this Lee Child series. Although he missed books two through four, he spoke at the genesis with the first Reacher book, “Killing Floor.” So it pains me to say this, but: It’s time for Hill to go. Somewhere around book 19, “Personal,” Hill’s voice developed a warble. With each successive novel, Reacher sounds less like a tough guy and more like someone’s uncertain grandpa. The problem is more of tone than age. There is little in the books to remind us that Reacher, who fights with the ferocity and experience of a 30-something brawler, is actually 57. But Hill’s narration turns him geriatric. While it is delightful to imagine pops taking on seven outlaw bikers — none of whom so much as scuffs his shoes — it strains even my very elastic credulity when it comes to Jack Reacher. (I also miss the days when Reacher still took an occasional punch.)

More problematic: It’s often difficult to tell who’s talking. Is it Reacher or the private investigator he’s teamed with? Is it Reacher or the general who runs West Point? They are frequently indistinguishable. You can regain a younger Reacher if you speed the playback to 1.25x on your smartphone, but that doesn’t fix the dialogue confusion. Hill is a celebrated narrator, with more than 500 titles to his name and three Audie awards. He’s earned his place among the great voices. But for Jack Reacher, his voice is great no longer.

“The Book of Dust” by Philip Pullman, narrated by Michael Sheen, Listening Library, 13 hours, 7 minutes

“His Dark Materials,” Philip Pullman’s beloved trilogy about the indomitable girl hero, Lyra Belacqua, are full-cast recordings, Technicolor feasts of memorable voices. Lyra’s scrappy breathlessness remains my favorite girl voice, and the rumbling Iorek Byrnison, my favorite bear. So what were they thinking, giving a single actor the “Dark Materials” prequel, “The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage”?

For the rest of this review, plus “Turtles All the Way Down,” follow the link.

Audiobook reviews: Munich, Anatomy of a Scandal, This Could Hurt

Anatomy, This, MunichJenni Laidman
Chicago Tribune
April 10, 2018

“Munich” by Robert Harris, narrated by David Rintoul, Random House Audio, 9 hours, 38 minutes

Actor David Rintoul, the narrator of Robert Harris’ thriller, “Munich,” summons a grumbling chorus of voices as the diplomatic maneuvers to prevent World War II unfurl. Not only must Rintoul manage the dry-leaves delivery of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the beer-hall harshness of Adolf Hitler, he has all the politicians and civil servants at the hearts of the British and German governments to enliven. Rintoul keeps a taut rein on the growing tension as a pair of young men — one German, one English — try to change the course of history.

The story of Chamberlain’s effort to forestall war is so well-worn, it’s lost its edges for many, but Harris’ story snaps the prime minister’s motivations into place. Chamberlain is a wily negotiator, working hard to outflank Hitler. If words could bind a criminal, Chamberlain’s desperate machinations would have changed history. But the prime minister disregarded Hitler’s essence; Paul von Hartmann, temporarily assigned to Hitler’s staff, has information he hopes will change Chamberlain’s course. His only hope of passing it along is a former Oxford friend, Hugh Legat, a low-ranking member of Chamberlain’s staff. Harris, who wrote “Fatherland” and the Cicero Trilogy, is a master of layering detail for tightly plotted, immersive fiction. His two young schemers are positioned to provide an intimate view of the political and defense calculations on both sides of the channel, while on the streets of London, workers scurry with sandbags and shovels to prepare for the worst — the only efforts that, in the end, really mattered.

To read the other reviews, follow the link here.

Governor Praying for Kentucky

after jesus
After lightning struck the Touchdown Jesus statue that was visible from I-75 north of Cincinnati.

By Jenni Laidman

Gov. Matt Bevin recently announced a plan to end violence in Louisville via walking prayer groups.

Gov. Matt Bevin announced his With Prayer All Things Are Possible initiative this week, beginning with the Faith Over Fracking March to end the dominance of low-cost natural gas, which is doing so much damage to Kentucky’s coal mining.

“We’re going to pray that all those fracking wells dry up so that we can restore one of Kentucky’s traditional industries. Our prayers have already pretty much destroyed the Environmental Protection Agency, so we’ve got that covered. Now we just need to get rid of other lower cost fuels,” the governor said Tuesday.

The governor’s office announced that the Faith Over Fracking Prayer Walk will be followed by the Tell God to Stop Moving Those Windmills Walk. A governor’s spokesman said the plan is to go after all alternative fuel methods. “We probably have to leave solar alone,” the spokesman said. “The governor is not convinced that asking God to blot out the sun will be good for our farmers. So it’s a compromise.”

In another sweeping series of cost-saving prayer initiatives, the Governor plans to shut down health departments around the state, and will instead send out prayer teams to every restaurant, so that no Kentuckian be sickened by contaminated food.

“The bible says we can take up serpents and drink poison and not be harmed if we have faith,” Bevin said. “So, if the ground meat is dripping onto the lettuce, and there are mouse turds in the tuna casserole, we believe prayer will make the food safe for Kentuckians to eat, and at a tremendous cost savings.”

Needle exchange programs administered by health departments will be replaced by regular laying on of hands to addicts who report to the needle exchange sites. “At least initially, a daily laying on of hands of the addicted will be required before we eventually put an end to the heroin problem hurting so many of our counties,” the governor acknowledged. “But eventually, we should be drug free.”

The governor’s plan is being applauded by many community activists. Said one activist who asked not to be named, “I’m so glad to see the governor applying faith to the problems of white people. When he introduced his West End prayer walks, I thought that was because he used all Kentucky’s money solving white community problems, so prayer was the only solution he could afford for murders in our community. I mean, if prayer is powerful enough to solve a murder crisis, maybe it’s powerful enough to cover the governor’s mortgage payments. Oh, wait, yeah, now that I think about it, I guess he’s already done that.”

https://www.louisville.com/content/bevin-announces-plan-to-pray-away-fracking-and-wind-energy

Man Booker: Is this the year of the sure thing?

I shall be bold and announce that this year, for the first time ever, I will agree with the Man Booker judges when, on October 13, they decide which book wins the annual literary prize for novels published in English. I am just that sure, and not only because everyone is betting on the same favorite. Frontrunners often lose. But I’m declaring the American Pharoah effect in honor of the horse that brought home the Triple Crown for the first time in 37 years. That seems an omen for frontrunners. I dare the committee to prove me wrong and pick anything other than A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Although A Little Life has a reputation for making grown men weep, it’s a story built on the warm friendships among four men
who met in college. From the start, Yanagihara’s unadorned prose transmits the inevitability of tragedy, with the gradual A Little Liferevelation of the horror-filled childhood of one character, Jude St. Francis. Yanagihara’s characters are, as adults, people of privilege and remarkable success — there’s an Oscar-winning movie star, a powerful attorney, a famous architect, and a celebrated artist. But that bit of unreality recedes in the face of Jude’s suffering, as he tries to manage a life plagued by childhood demons.

Why I’m right: It’s reported to be a 2-to-1 favorite, and who doesn’t like a good cry? The characters are likeable, the relationships deep and worth exploring, and the plot moving, unflagging and unforgettable.

Why I might be wrong: It’s a fairy tale of friendship among people who have it all.

(Doubleday; 720 pages; $30)

Another pairing of tragedy and the bonds between males, in this case boys, is my No. 2 pick for the prize, The Fishermen, a first novel by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma. Four sons form a tightknit tribe who do everything together. The story, told from the perfectly tuned perspective of 9-year-old Benjamin, feels like a slow motion tumble, where every possible rescue comes into sharp focus The Fishermenjust as it slips beyond reach. The brothers are warned to stay away from the nearby river, but when their father has to leave his family behind to work 1,000 kilometers away, the river calls. They go fishing, and it’s fun. They declare themselves “The Fishermen,” even making up a song to accompany their labors. Returning from a fishing outing one day, the boys encounter the local madman who prophesies the death of the oldest boy. “Ikena, you will swim in a river of red but shall never rise from it again,” he shouts. The boy will be killed, the man says, by a fisherman. The malignant words burrow into the 14-year-old’s thoughts and take over. Ikenna tries to protect himself from the prophecy, and by doing so, unravels all. (304 pages; Little, Brown and Company; $26)

Why I might be wrong and this could win: It has the power of a tragedy and the vividness of a boy’s voice.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Jamaican author Marlon James, is No. 3 on my Man Booker list. To read it is to be A Brief Historybombarded with violence, assaulted by a horde of voices, and buried in stories—stories that left me desperately searching for a narrative. Several characters act as narrators—a dead politician, a CIA agent, an obnoxious Rolling Stone reporter, several Jamaican gangsters, young men transformed into coke-addled bloodthirsty thugs, and a woman caught in the storm when she shows up just as gang leader Josey Wales and company shoots The Singer. The book is based on events in Jamaican history, including the shooting of reggae star Bob Marley in 1976. It also incorporates the rise of a Jamaican gang that, by the 1980s, controlled the crack trade in New York and Miami. Reading it is a challenge. It’s exasperating and confusing, raw and violent, and overrun with wicked, empty people. It’s also smart, daring, and as things finally — mostly — come together, breathtaking.

Why I might be wrong and this could win: Few writers take such gambles. Fewer still can pull them off.

My No. 4 pick for the prize, The Year of the Runaways by British novelist Sunjeev Sahota, is about men living on the margins, and one woman, Narindar, whose act of compassion ruptures her tranquil life and destroys her faith. The men, Tochi, Randeep,Year of the Runaways and Avtar, are illegal Indian migrants in Sheffield, England. They live in circumstances so desperate, friendships are too costly to keep. The men run the hopeless treadmill of underpaid, physically brutal or menial jobs, for employers who view them as interchangeable pieces, and sometimes, property. The litany of hardships is awful and riveting. Yet the book lacks a sense of intimacy for much of its length, and does not find its heart until its final chapters, when Narindar and Tochi, an “untouchable” whose family was brutally slaughtered in sectarian violence in India, are forced together by circumstances, an event that marks the turning point in both lives.

Why I might be wrong and this could win: Well-developed characters with wrenching stories make an almost political statement about what it means to be a migrant in the West.

I won’t lie. I have no idea what my No. 5 pick is about. In Satin Island, author Tom McCarthy, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010 for his novel, C, is telling us something about modern life. He says many clever things, and explores several intriguing Satin Islandobsessions — parachute accidents, oil spills—to no clear end. I’m so uncertain about all this, I’m going to tell you how the book ends: His character, U — and there’s really only one character — decides not to take the Staten Island Ferry. That’s it. Staten Island is —have you guessed it? — Satin Island. It came to U in a dream, appearing as a giant and beautiful trash incineration plant amid mountains of garbage, representing the true expression of our culture. I think. U makes this discovery while working as an in-house ethnologist for a big, anomalous company where he’s assigned to write, “The First and Last word of the Age,” as his contribution to the firm’s nebulous project of earth-shaking importance. And then other things happen. If I’ve given away too much, I apologize.

Why I might be wrong and this could win: Many, many people are much smarter than I am and may understand this. It offers all kinds of tidbits to think about, and some moments buzzing with insight.

Anne Tyler’s characters don’t change so much as dig themselves deeper in A Spool of Blue Thread, my No. 6 pick for the Man Booker. The story revolves around an unexpected homecoming by misfit son, Denny. Denny has skipped years of holiday Spool of Bluegatherings, blames his parents for most everything wrong in his life, and resents his siblings. No surprise that no one quite believes him when he announces he’s returned to help the folks, Red and Abby. Red recently suffered a heart attack, and Abby’s memory is on the fritz. The problem is, Denny’s brother Stem has already moved in. Family tensions bubble along until boiling over in a fistfight between the brothers. Tyler is a master at finding the unhappy underside of family life and portraying the loveable, or in Denny’s case, the unlovable, loser. Yet somehow these parental anxieties, sibling resentments and sly observations of both don’t add up to much. Tyler’s familiarity with family foibles feels just too familiar, and there’s not much new to say about the fact that Mom liked you best.

Why I might be wrong and this could win: Tyler is admired as a deft observer of the intricacies of the American family. More compelling to me, for the past two years, Man Booker judges have picked the book I liked least as the winner. They could do so again, American Pharoah be damned.

Here is a selection of articles I wrote for Medscape Medical News

Here is a selection of articles I wrote for Medscape Medical News

The Medscape stories are directed towards a medical audience. If your PhD or medical degree is at the cleaners this week, you might not find them the most scintillating stuff. They’re heavy on statistics and jargon, and the titles of researchers and physicians go on forever, per Medscape style.  I like writing them not because they challenge my writing chops — chops don’t seem desirable here — but because they challenge my brain and demand a lot of care to execute. Since my PhD has been at the cleaners for — well, forever — I dare not mess around with them or take shortcuts. Writing them is a regular lesson in careful thinking.

Oh, and I keep getting a little message from WordPress that there might be an ad on this page. I doubt that will happen, unless there’s an advertiser out there who wants to reach my five friends. But let me know if you do see an ad; I’m curious who would be desperate enough to use this space.

Easy to Swallow

GULP:
Into the Bowels
of Bowels
with Mary Roach

MOUTHIf someone took a notion to ask author Mary Roach to perform, say, stomach surgery, she would probably also remove much of the large intestine, the gall bladder and at least one kidney, all with the excuse that it was just so interesting.

That’s the kind of crazy logic that holds together Roach’s newest book, “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” as it comfortably slides from a meditation on cat food tasters (“The average rating, I am gobsmacked to report, fell between ‘liked mildly’ and ‘neither like nor dislike’ “) to accounts of explosive colonoscopies, to a discourse on cow farts (they don’t), to a product that keeps flatulence from smelling, which somehow also manages to include the story of how the photograph of a friend’s 1980s band reemerged on a greeting card years later with the heading, “Greetings from the Dork Club.”

Like the perfect dinner guest full of entertaining conversation — or wait, given the subject, lets delay this until dinner is over — Roach rolls out one surprising story after another. She matches the dinner wit’s great timing with her impressive mastery of the comic footnote. Take a discussion of megacolons, a phenomenon caused by something called Hirschsprung’s disease. Hirschsprung’s robs the lower digestive tract of its ability to keep things moving, forcing the organ to distend to painful proportions. The megacolon of a man named J.W. grew so large that, upon seeing it at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Roach thinks, “It wears the same size jeans as me.” It left poor J.W. looking like “the bastard offspring of Humpty Dumpty and Olive Oyl,” she says.Roach tells us J.W. spent part of his life as “The Balloon Man” in a freak show exhibit in Philadelphia’s old Ninth & Arch Museum, alongside such oddities as the “Minnesota Wooly Baby.” Then this footnote: “Oddly, the exhibit chosen for billboarding on the building’s exterior was ‘Young Women Basketball Players.'”

 Here’s the rest of the review.