Authors: Joseph Monninger
I bought a straight navy T-shirt with a bright yellow can of SPAM across the chest.
“Which?” Delores said, pointing to the shirts.
“I like the Russian army one,” I said.
“I do, too, but I like the other one better.”
“What does that mean?”
“The Russian shirt feels like it’s trying too hard,” Delores said. “I can just picture guys reading the shirt and staring at my boobs. ‘SPAM-Fabulous’ is easy.”
“Okay,” I said. “Buy it.”
She bought both. She couldn’t help it. She wanted to buy us hats, too, but I told her no way. She pitched a mini-fit, but she couldn’t help laughing as she paid. When the clock in the shop hit five, it let out five oinks.
“You all find everything?” the ticket guy asked.
“You bet your SPAM we did,” Delores said, crazy, the way she can be at times.
“Is that your truck?” he asked. “Because there was a cop looking at it a second ago.”
“We’re fugitives from the law,” Delores said. “We’re women going west.”
“Exciting,” the ticket guy said.
“Where’s the cop now?” I asked.
“He went over near the other side of the parking lot. Be cool going out, not all spazzy. That’s my advice.”
“SPAM you again,” Delores said.
The ticket guy shook his head and smiled down at his hands.
The rain hadn’t let up. We stood for a minute under the archway of the SPAM can.
“Where are we, anyway?” I asked.
“Austin, Minnesota. We haven’t come that far across Minnesota yet.”
“What’s the next state?” I asked, crooking my head
forward a little to look out for the cop car. I saw it down where the SPAM guy had said it would be. It idled quietly, its lights dimmed, the cop impossible to see through the window.
“South Dakota,” Delores said.
“We should change the plates back,” I said.
“I’m thinking so, too.”
“Let’s find a place where Speed can feed and we can get out of the rain. We can figure the rest out later.”
“No idea,” I said. “Let’s just follow the service road and see where it takes us. It’s not like it’s all city around here.”
“That’s a plan.”
We put the T-shirt bags over our heads and ran back to the truck. We knew better than to look at the cop car. Delores jumped in behind the wheel, and I slid in on the other side. She started the truck and got it going smoothly. She drove pretty smart, actually. She looped a little toward the cop car, no worries, then steered her way out of the parking lot.
“Is he coming?” she asked, not looking in the mirror. “Pretend you need something behind you and turn and look.”
“Nope, he’s not coming.”
“We are so freaking ninja.”
She gassed the truck onto the service road. We headed west.
“I get to wear your T-shirt half the time,” I said.
“Whichever one I want.”
“We’re not sleeping out tonight,” she said, looking at the rain.
“We can get a motel,” I said. “That’s in the budget, but not the T-shirts.”
“Two nights in a motel,” she said. “Right?”
“Whatever,” I said. “We’ll see.”
“We need a sweet setup with Speed.”
“He needs to take a break soon.”
I got up on my knees and looked back through the rear window at Speed. Now and then I glimpsed him swaying between his two halter leads. His big, lanky head swung into view for a second. He looked asleep.
“I hate putting him out in the rain,” I said. “Even with a blanket, I don’t like it.”
“He’ll be okay. We’ve had good luck so far. Besides, if he’s going to be living in the wild, he better get used to a few things.”
For a while after that we didn’t talk. I’m not sure what Delores thought about, but I felt a little homesick and lonely.
I couldn’t say why. Part of it came from the isolation of being in a truck, on a road, in a state we didn’t know. Part of it came from wondering if we were doing right by Speed after all. Maybe it had been selfish to take him, just as the Fergusons had said. We sort of used him as an excuse to leave, it felt like, and that put a block of ice in my guts. But then I reminded myself that I loved Speed, truly loved him, and what came from love had a chance of being right. I wouldn’t hurt him for the world.
We passed two motels, one skeezier than the next. Each tried to outdo the other with catchy names. Bide-a-While, and Empty Tank Motel. You had to wonder about the owners, the first time they opened for business, the whole crew standing out in the front yard of the cruddy-looking place and seeing that sign and thinking,
That will really bring them in
. The image seemed so crazy, I had to rub my hands into my eyes.
“Let’s get Speed out,” I said. “He’s been cooped up too long.”
“Okay, Hattie,” Delores said, taking a turn up one of the side roads. “There’s bound to be a meadow around here.”
A mile or two up, Delores bounced the truck up a dirt road that went through two meadows. The land stretched out flat and quiet and dark. The rain had stopped for the most
part, but the clouds had covered any chance of a moon, and Delores turned on her lights to see ahead of us.
“Look at that,” I said. “Did you see?”
Just over the next small rise we saw a pack of horses. They had collected next to the road under a large pin oak. In the gloaming light, with the clouds low over the horizon, the horses looked out of a painting.
“Pull over,” I said, but Delores was already doing it.
“There’s a gate, too,” Delores said. “Sweet. Spammy sweet.”
She pulled carefully onto the shoulder, which was wide enough to get us entirely off the road. The meadows went on in either direction as far as we could see. Here and there the landowner had left a tree, but mostly the land threw up grass.
I hopped out as soon as the truck switched off and opened the trailer. Speed stepped a few times in place, nervous at the smell of other horses. I made a quiet humming sound, as I usually did around horses, and I edged in and unbuckled his halter leads. Delores opened the pasture gate as I backed him down. He had crapped a couple times and the trailer floor was messy.
“You’ve got some friends,” I said to Speed, turning him to the pasture gate.
“You don’t think they’ll challenge him, do you?” Delores asked. “The males, I mean.”
“No, I don’t think so. He’s too old. No one will take him as a threat.”
“Let’s hope not.”
She swung the gate back. I let Speed go through. He walked ahead, stiff from all the confinement. A horse in the pack whinnied, but I couldn’t tell which one. Delores closed the gate, and we put our elbows on it.
“ ‘He is pure air and fire; and the dull elements of earth and water never appear in him, but only in patient stillness while his rider mounts him: he is indeed a horse; and all other jades you may call beasts,’ ” I quoted, watching Speed pick his way into the meadow.
“Oh, geez, Hattie, don’t start with all that.”
“It’s the only horse quote I know.”
“Where’s it from again?”
“Shakespeare. I forget which play. I learned it in fifth grade. I used to look up horse quotes. I thought it made horses sound cool.”
“And made you sound like a dork.”
We didn’t move away, though. We watched Speed bury his nose in the grass. Mist drifted over him in pale puffs, and
sometimes he disappeared in the dimness, and other times he reappeared, a dark horse shape moving gently over the flat ground.
HILE I CHANGED THE LICENSE PLATES BACK TO
Hampshire tags, Delores dug around in the truck and came up with peanut butter sandwiches. Just peanut butter on the heels of our last loaf of bread. She mixed up cherry water and found half a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. We ate on the tailgate of the truck. The weather began to clear, but it was still misty and cool, and we both wore barn coats and baseball hats. Enough moonlight fell through the clouds so that we didn’t need headlamps.
“You ever wonder,” I asked her, chomping down on three Doritos at once, “how we got here? I mean, do you think we were destined to end up in Austin, Minnesota, or wherever we are, or that this was all by our choice and it’s just a random set of circumstances?”
“If this is fate, it sucks,” Delores said.
“What, you don’t like being here?”
Delores looked around.
“Actually, I do,” she said. “As long as some hillbilly Bob
doesn’t come along and drag us out of the truck tonight. It’s pretty here.”
“I don’t think anyone’s around,” I said. “Besides, we’ve got a can of pepper spray.”
“I think,” Delores said, stuffing the last of her sandwich into her mouth and talking around it, “that maybe we’re living in Speed’s fate. Like maybe he’s pulling us along. Who knows? And maybe we were Roman gladiators ten lives ago and Speed was the Emperor Augustus or something.”
“You are weird,” I said.
“I’m going to check on Speed. You finish the excellent meal I made you. Why didn’t we buy SPAM for sandwiches?”
She grabbed her headlamp and pushed through the gate. As soon as it clicked, she seemed to disappear. I ate the rest of my sandwich and all of the remaining Doritos, but it felt strange sitting alone in the darkness. I stood and brushed the crumbs off my lap. I started to call Delores’s name, but that seemed wimpy. I crumpled up the Doritos bag and stuffed it into the old bread sack. I wiped my mouth and had a last drink of cherry water. A chill made me shudder a little, and I grabbed my headlamp and headed for the gate. Before I reached it, I saw Delores riding up on the other side of the fence. She rode a horse, but it wasn’t Speed.
“Thoroughbreds, Hattie,” she whispered loudly. “This one let me right up on her.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Come on. We could ride any one we like. I think they’re racehorses.”
I pushed through the gate. Delores sat astride a beautiful bay mare with a white blaze on its forehead. Being around Speed so much, I had nearly forgotten what a horse could be. Delores had her hands dug into the horse’s mane. She looked wild and happy.
“Speed’s fine,” she said. “I saw him out by the other horses. Come on. Jump up on one, and we’ll ride like Sioux warriors.”
I felt my heart go up as it always did when I was about to ride. I jogged beside Delores as she trotted the horse back to the pack. It was hard to make out the horses’ individual shapes until I was nearly up to them. But I saw the one I wanted almost at once. It was a big white male, thicker than the others through the withers, with a soft, gentle face. I stepped between a couple horses and moved closer. He let me pet him without a problem. Delores kept her horse on the outside of the small herd.
“You taking that white one?” she said in a stage whisper.
“I hope so.”
“Hop up. Can you get on him?”
“I’m trying,” I said.
“Giddyup, girl. Come on.”
I pushed my body close, grabbed a hank of his mane, and jumped. He shied a step or two back, but I had a hold on him and let him carry me for a second. When he steadied, I dropped again, bounced, and chucked my body up over his back. He put his head down to keep eating. I swung my leg around and grabbed his mane on either side of his neck.
“Come on, boy,” I said, and got his head up out of the grass.
Then I kicked him a little and goosed him forward. He went without any difficulty. I kicked him again, and he moved better, nearly trotting until I pulled him up beside Delores’s bay. It felt amazing to have a horse under me and the night clearing off.
“Now, this is more like it,” Delores said.
“I’ll follow,” I said.
“Easy does it,” she said, and pulled her bay toward the center of the meadow.
She walked at first. I had a little trouble figuring out how to go bareback, although it wasn’t the first time I’d ridden that way. But the white horse was new to me, and I didn’t want to spook him or let him get away with being stupid. I
stayed firm on him, riding him with my hips and legs, while his head stroked up and down between my hands. “Good boy, good boy,” I whispered. I concentrated so hard on getting my rhythm with him that I didn’t notice the moonlight at first. It came out low and haunted, stretched across the hillside, and I saw Delores kick her horse into a trot. My horse surged right after the bay, and we caught up to her in no time. We cantered a little, and the moon blazed on Delores uphill from me, and my heart filled. I started tearing, not sure why, but horses did that to me and I didn’t question it. It had something to do with the moonlight, the mist rising off the meadow, the clouds pushing east along the horizon. But it also had something to do with Delores and me, about a yearning we both had, a feeling that time might run out on us somehow and we wouldn’t know it had until it was too late.
Then we galloped.
“All other jades you may call beasts,” I whispered, and leaned down to stay close to the white horse’s neck.
The horses felt full of the whole thing, too. I knew it. They ran straight ahead, ears back, their long pulling gaits pegged to a Thoroughbred’s stride. They threw their hind legs through their front legs, their big haunches yanking and shoving, their mouths and necks starting to sweat. I gripped harder. Up ahead of me Delores let out a war whoop,
and then we crested a hill I hadn’t even noticed, and headed down. I smelled a river somewhere, or at least water, and the drops from my horse came up in white dots around me, the hooves casting spray from the wet grass, and when I checked Delores, she appeared to be running on a lake top, a girl on a fairy horse sprinting across fresh water. As I looked, Delores let go of the bay’s mane and sat straight up, riding only with her legs and hips, her arms out as if to fly. She tilted her head back, too, and she looked so perfect doing it that I didn’t dare try to copy her. This was something only for her, something I could only witness, and she galloped down that hill with her soul somewhere up in the sky above her. We both knew it, and we never had to mention it.
HE HORSES STOPPED NEAR A TREE LINE WHERE
a river or stream ran. A few stars came out ahead of us, and by seeing them I knew the weather had broken for the time being. Still, the air hit cold and clean along my chest, but down under my seat, and along my legs—any place I touched against the white horse—warmth passed to me. The horses breathed hard. Delores had returned her hands to the horse’s mane, and she breathed as deeply as the horse did. I laughed, but it wasn’t a loud, funny laugh. It felt almost like a cough.