Authors: Joseph Monninger
“We will,” I said.
“What kind of horse, anyway?”
“A chestnut named Speed.”
“Well, here,” she said, handing us a plastic bag of carrots. “The cook said he had extra.”
“Thank you,” I said. “That’s really nice.”
“I like horses,” she said.
We left a good tip, then slid out of the booth. The trucker guy who had spoken to us said,
Delores said to him.
,” the second driver said.
We linked arms and ran outside. We laughed all the way out to the truck. Delores, the happy Delores. Delores the pretend French-speaking Delores. We kept swinging around and around, like two planets slinging away from the sun. The light had just cleared the White Mountains behind us.
“Where in the world are you?” she asked.
We were parked in a rest stop not far from Albany. We had already crossed Vermont. Delores had stopped for a bathroom break, and when I checked her cell phone, it had three bars. I called home.
“I’m in New York State,” I said.
“With Delores, of course.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You girls are going to be the death of me.”
I didn’t say anything.
“The Fergusons called here first thing this morning,” Mom said, her voice becoming businesslike. “They’re quite upset with you.”
“Sorry doesn’t really cut it, does it?”
“They were going to kill Speed.”
“They don’t think the horse is in any condition for a road trip. They think you’ll actually be cruel to the horse by taking it somewhere.”
“I’d never be cruel to a horse. You know that.”
“You wouldn’t mean to be, Hattie. But sometimes your judgment might fall a little short.”
We didn’t say anything for a second. Delores returned. She had a water bottle. She sat on the hood of the truck and drank.
“We’ll take care of the horse,” I said.
“You’re too young to be riding around the country on your own.”
“I’m with Delores.”
“Is that supposed to reassure me? Delores has a history of being fragile, Hattie. We both know that.”
“It’s only a couple weeks.”
I heard her breathe out smoke. It was easy to picture her on the back porch, a cigarette in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other, the phone tucked between her chin and shoulder. It was a Wednesday, so she had the midmorning shift at the parts store. She had to be at work at ten.
“Just when I thought things were a little on track with you,” she said. “You just earned your GED. I thought we were heading somewhere.”
“I am heading somewhere.”
“Not in a straight line, I’ll tell you that.”
“Mom, it’s only going to be a couple weeks. Then we’ll be back.”
“Delores, too? Because her mom is going to call, and I better know what to say.”
“Her mom wants her out of there. Her mom has a new boyfriend.”
“So she’s not coming back? So you won’t just be a couple weeks necessarily.”
“She’s not sure.”
“Well, that’s just great. And how will you get back?”
“I’ll take a bus.”
“And where are you actually going? Do you know?”
“I have a couple places in mind.”
“The Fergusons think the trailer ride will be too much for Speed.”
“He’s doing fine. We just checked him.”
“This is just crazy, Hattie.”
“Not that crazy, Mom. I’m not trying to be defiant. I just knew if I asked people for permission they wouldn’t give it.”
“By ‘people,’ you mean me?”
“You or the Fergusons.”
“It’s their horse, by the way.”
“It would be dead by now,” I said. “So any way you count it, he’s doing better with us.”
“You wear me out, Hattie.”
“I don’t mean to.”
She didn’t say anything. I looked at Delores. She had the water bottle to her lips. People pulled in and pulled out. I heard Speed move in the trailer. We needed to get him out of there soon and give him a break.
“Do you have some sort of plan for your life other than stealing horses?” Mom asked.
“I’m sixteen, Mom. I don’t have a life plan.”
“I just wish you’d think more before you do things. This is the kind of impulsive behavior we’ve talked about before. Delores feeds right into that.”
“I know I’m sometimes impulsive, Mom. But not about this. Delores and I figured everything out.”
“I want you to turn around and come back, Hattie,” Mom said. “What in the world do you suppose people will think of a mother who lets her sixteen-year-old daughter wander around the country?”
“I’m not wandering around the country, Mom. I’m delivering a horse, that’s all.”
She smoked a little more. Then I heard her start moving around fast like she does when she decides it’s time to get going.
“You’re doing this against my wishes, you understand that, Hattie?”
“This kind of behavior won’t lead you any place you want to go. It’s a bad start on your life.”
“Mom, come on. Don’t go overboard.”
“I mean it. I don’t know where we’re heading with all this. You’re more than I can handle.”
“I’ll be back by November at the latest, Mom. I’m going to apply for some jobs, and I promise I’ll look into some community college courses. It will be okay.”
“Just like that?”
“What do you want me to say, Mom?”
“I want to speak to Delores.”
“She’s inside in the bathroom,” I lied. “We’re at a rest stop.”
“You tell her to give me a call tonight, then.”
“What should I tell the Fergusons?”
“Tell them I’m sorry. Tell them I didn’t mean it as a whatever to them.”
“What do you call it? A reproach?”
“Well, that’s how they took it, young lady.”
“I’ll be back by November, Mom. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“You’re lucky they’re not calling the police on you. They like you, Hattie. They’re very disappointed.”
There was no answer to that, so I didn’t say anything. Mom finally wound down. She said she loved me but I was really testing her. Pushing the envelope. Straining things. She said we needed to have a whole new way of going at things when I returned. A
new way, she said, emphasizing the “whole.” Then we hung up.
“How did it go?” Delores asked when she saw me finish.
“Great,” I said, ladling on the sarcasm.
“But she can’t do anything, can she?”
“She wants to talk to you tonight.”
“There’s something to look forward to,” Delores said. “You know what I’m learning? If you do what you want, most people can’t do much about it. That’s worth knowing.”
She climbed in and started the truck.
“Let’s find a spot to give Speed a break,” I said. “He needs a good drink.”
“Okay,” she said.
“The Fergusons think we’re being cruel to Speed. You think we are?”
“Anything is better than dead,” Delores said, putting the truck in gear. “Almost, anyway.”
E SLIPPED OFF
NTERSTATE 90 SOMEPLACE IN
State and drove about twenty miles on back roads until we found a small rest stop that looked abandoned. Maybe once upon a time the rest stop sat on an active highway, but now it was grown over with weeds, and the pavement had buckled and broken in about a dozen places. Small picnic tables, with little roofs over them, dotted a grassy section. A creek about the size of a bowling alley ran through the middle of the area. A chipped sign at the western edge of the creek identified it as Blackeyed Creek.
We backed Speed out of the trailer and let him get his balance. He looked a little wobbly. We walked him down to the creek and took him in up to his shins. He drank a long, long time. Because it was warm out, we grabbed a sponge from the trailer and bathed him. The water perked him up. It was strange seeing him away from the Fergusons’ stable. He looked better somehow, more of a horse, and we kept sponging him to watch the water roll off him. Afterward we took him to the grassy section and let him eat. He went at the grass right away, chewing with big yanks, one after another.
Delores grabbed some food we had thrown in a cooler—we had turkey cold cuts and white bread and a jar of mustard and one of mayo—and we fixed up two sandwiches. We filled our water bottles from the pump fountain next to the restrooms and added cherry powder. Then we sat for a while in the shade and watched Speed graze. He went for the clover first, sniffing it and eating it at the same time.
“Tell me about the bureau,” Delores said, drinking from her water bottle.
“The Bureau of Land Management. ‘The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, established to ensure that healthy herds thrive on healthy rangelands,’ ” I said, quoting the literature I had memorized.
“I like thinking about that. I like knowing it exists.”
“You think Speed can survive on a rangeland?”
Delores shrugged. We both had our eyes on Speed. I knew Delores. She was coming to a low point. I could see the air going out of her. Sometimes she went so low that the only way back up was by breaking something. Sometimes the thing she broke was herself, and sometimes it was the people around her, and you couldn’t head her off, couldn’t chase her into a corner like you could a horse, because she couldn’t think straight when she got like that. She was all nerve when she hit the bottom. It scared me when she headed that way,
but it scared her more than anyone else. She said it felt like pond ice inside her, thin and ready to break, and underneath, miles of dark water waited, ready to gobble her up. She said she had once seen a duck frozen into a lake, its webbed feet trapped and glowing yellow under the ice, and that was the image that stayed with her. “Frozen duck,” she said for shorthand when she got all turned around inside, and I hated to know that she saw that in her mind’s eye.
“That’s where I should go,” she said, getting gritty in her eyes, “to the wild free-roaming rangeland for teenagers.”
“ ‘Thirty-three thousand horses roam Bureau of Land Management land in ten western states,’ ” I said, quoting again.
Then I looked at her closely.
“You okay?” I asked. “You getting major blue? You getting frozen duck?”
“No, I’m okay. Which state has the best rangeland?”
“Montana or Wyoming,” I said, still watching her. “At least, I think so.”
Delores didn’t say anything for a little. When she spoke again, I knew she had been far away in her thoughts. Talking about horses and rangeland was only part of what she wanted.
“You think I should keep going?” she asked. “I mean, after?”
“I’d miss you.”
“I’d miss you to the moon, too,” she said. “But what do you think?”
“I don’t know, Delores. It’s different now that we’re actually traveling. Your mom will break up with Larry soon. She always moves on.”
“Larry,” Delores said. “What a dimwit. Do you know what kind of car he drives? An El Camino. Part truck, part car. It’s the freaking mullet of cars. Business up front, party at the back.”
“You’ll figure it out.”
“You know,” she said, “I think sometimes that the true reason we want Speed to get to the bureau land is so he won’t live his whole life trapped and going in circles. Do you know what I mean? We’re Speed. We’re afraid we won’t get to be horses.”
“You’re probably right,” I said.
“And because Speed is about as nice a horse as ever lived.”
“The gentlest. Will you call your mom?”
“Well, that will be awkward,” I said, which was a gag phrase we used sometimes back and forth, but she didn’t laugh or repeat it back.
When we finished our sandwiches, we went and hugged Speed. He allowed it, but mostly he wanted to eat the clover.
DROVE IN THE AFTERNOON WHILE
looked pretty sleeping against the passenger window, her hair a little mussed, her knees tucked up for comfort. She was still asleep when we entered the tip of Pennsylvania, then Ohio. It felt strange driving on the interstate, flying along and taking miles under us. I wasn’t strictly legal to drive. I had my license, but I could only drive with a person over twenty-five in the vehicle. Our plan was to switch seats fast if a cop pulled us over, and to keep it slow anyway. We figured cops didn’t really want to stop a truck pulling a horse unless he or she absolutely had to.
I listened to some country-and-western station, soft and quiet. I drove, but I thought about Mom, and about home and bed, and about the Fergusons. Later I thought about the Przewalski’s horse. I had done a report on them in ninth grade—the only wild horse left in the world. They lived in Mongolia, and they had never been domesticated. American
mustangs and Australian brumbies were domestic horses that had gone feral. The same thing had happened to the wild burros and even some camels in the American West. Przewalski’s horses roamed around the Mongolian plains the same way they had since the beginning of time. Then sometime in the 1960s they went extinct in the wild. That was the official designation. A few survived in zoos, and some good people set up a foundation, and they traded horse semen back and forth, and eventually they reintroduced a small herd of the Przewalski’s horse back on the Mongolian steppes. The Przewalski’s horse has sixty-six chromosomes, not sixty-four like domestic horses, which means they can crossbreed with donkeys or zebras and produce fertile offspring. It seemed to me that the Przewalski’s horse was the Adam and Eve of horses, and maybe doing that report in ninth grade had led to my sitting behind the wheel of a Ford F-150 with a horse in the back, heading west.