Authors: Joseph Monninger
I went and settled Speed. I made sure his lead moved freely across the ground. And I grabbed a blanket out of the
trailer and draped it over his shoulders. He nickered a little when I rubbed his forehead. He put his head up and let me balance it on my shoulder. He smelled of horse and barn and grass. I loved his smell and told him so.
Delores came over and petted Speed, too. We fussed over him. Mostly we used him to get our courage warmed up.
“You think they’ll come back?” I asked.
“The ATV jerks? They better not.”
“What did they want, anyway?”
“They wanted our magnificence.”
“Seriously,” I said.
“Get a rise out of us, that’s all. They’re bored. They feel tough on the ATVs. It’s a boy thing.”
“You think they might have mistaken us for someone they knew?”
“They thought we were a Burger King, Hattie,” Delores said. “You’re too trusting for your own good.”
We talked about the ATVs until the fire ran out of fuel and we had stuffed ourselves with marshmallows. Yawning, we laid out our sleeping bags on the hood of the truck and put our backs against the windshield. The engine still sent a bit of warmth through the hood, and it felt good to absorb it and look up at the stars. The sky hung low and clean.
“This is the farthest west I’ve been,” I said, referring back to our conversation about Speed.
“I went once with my dad to Colorado. He drove a truck out there for a friend. I don’t remember much. I was pretty little.”
“Where is your dad, Delores?”
“Last we heard he was in Oregon.”
“You ever think about trying to track him down?”
“Only every day.”
“What was he like?”
“He was short, actually. Kind of a small guy, and wiry. Mom always called him the Jockey when she got mad at him. Redheaded, kind of, but the brown kind of redhead, not the orange kind.”
“You’ve got his coloring. Your coloring is pretty. My mom says you look British.”
She waved at a mosquito.
“He did tree work,” Delores said, intent on her own thoughts, “for a logging company, topping off big trees, until a landscaper hired him to down dead trees on expensive properties. That kind of thing. But he skipped out of work a lot. He didn’t drink or anything, he just lost interest. Then he drifted away, taking longer and longer trips on errands or
doing things like bringing that truck to Colorado. One day the kite string broke. That’s what Mom said.”
“You think your mom still loves him?”
“She says loving anyone after this long is loving a ghost. He left when I was about eight, I think. Mom says you don’t really remember who that person is or was, you just remember a murky image. She’s probably right about that.”
A bat cut through the stars for a second. It erased the stars, flicking back and forth, taking the light of the stars on its wings. We watched in silence.
“How about you?” Delores said. “You hear from your dad much?”
“Now and then. He sends Mom some support money sometimes, but it doesn’t really get to me directly. It was court mandated for household accounts.”
“Where is he?”
“Maryland. He’s got another family down there. He does okay, I guess. Drywalling.”
“Everyone needs drywall.”
“You’re poking fun, but it’s true.”
“Why did they split up, anyway?”
“Erosion, Mom says. They just wore each other to sand.”
“You think you want to get married and do all that?” Delores asked. “The kids, the house, the whole deal? I mean,
given our parents’ track record, you think it even makes sense to try it?”
“I’m not sure,” I sighed. “Trying it seems like a normal thing, but when you think about it, there’s nothing sensible about trying to live with someone.”
“And boys are crazy,” Delores said. “Just crazy.”
“I’ve never really dated anyone. It seems kind of confusing to me. You dated that guy Eugene, right?”
“He was my lover man, Hattie,” Delores said, and bumped her shoulder into mine. She almost made me slide off the hood. But I knew her history. She had been crazy for Eugene for about three days. Then she cooled like a lava flow. She became all rock, all pumice, with bright holes in her surface, as though the heat had been too much. She never even gave Eugene a reason for breaking up. She just trapped him in her heat, like the people in a village at the foot of a volcano, and he looked charred and stunned for weeks afterward.
We lay against the windshield without speaking. In the quiet, we heard a tiny brook running somewhere in the forest. Cold air moved over the campsite, and the fire glowed red. I played with the image of the red fire, clicking my eyes back and forth and turning it into an eye of a dragon lying flat on the ground and looking up, then into the top of a volcano on a midget island where no one grew taller than four feet and
the biggest houses only came up to your waist. That was the kind of thing I thought about when my mind washed around. That shift of mind hurt me in school a lot. Teachers usually wrote home and said I was dreamy or a woolgatherer. They were probably right, but I liked chasing my own thoughts. I always had.
We dozed and fell asleep. I woke twice to listen for Speed. Once I heard him chewing, and another time I heard his lead knock against his water barrel. I imagined climbing onto his back and feeling his wings sprout from his shoulders and great rays of light coming out of the sky to pull him home. All horses become Pegasus at the moment of their death. That’s what my first riding teacher told me, and that’s what I believed.
ELORES’S PHONE WOKE US
It rang and rang and eventually Delores slid off the hood and pawed through the truck cab until she came up with the phone. The sun hadn’t fully shaken free of the land. It still peppered through mist and fog and everything looked gray and quiet. Speed had settled on his stomach, but the sound of the phone brought him up onto his feet. He took his time getting there. He moved like an old man.
“What?” Delores said into the phone. “What are you saying?”
I slid off the truck hood. I felt stiff and lumpy. I folded the two sleeping bags and put them in the truck. Then I found a few more pine twigs and put them into the smoking ashes from the night before. I blew on them and they caught easily. I built the fire while Delores talked into the phone. She slid into the truck cab eventually and leaned her head back against the window, listening.
When I had the fire solid again, I worked Speed over with a rubber curry brush. I concentrated on his sides and hips, where dirt had worked its way under his hair. When I finished with that, I used a dandy brush on him to get the last of the dirt. He took it without complaint. It was a good moment, actually, with Speed. The air came fresh through the meadow and forest, and the sound of the fire behind us made it cheerful. I brushed him quietly and he leaned a little into me. I lost myself in my hands, let them do whatever they wanted, because having a horse in my care made more sense than anything else I could think about. A horse lives in the present, right now, right this minute, and when I moved my hands over Speed, I felt quiet and calm inside. I finished by giving him a couple carrots, and he took them with a big nod each time I let him nibble one into his mouth.
“That was Larry,” Delores said when I went back to the fire. She had plopped down on the picnic table. Her hair looked wild and uncombed. She had fed the fire a little higher, and it burned easily, cracking the mist that rolled around at our feet.
“What did Larry want?”
“Oh, he tried to be all fatherly for me. Mom put him up to it. How am I supposed to listen to a guy with an El Camino and a mullet?”
“Awkward,” I said, sitting next to her on the picnic table.
“I want pancakes,” she said.
“We can get pancakes. You okay?”
“Larry said they talked it over and he’d volunteered to call because maybe I’d be calmer with him. You know, like he’s Mr. United Nations or something.”
“Why so early?”
“They figured they would get me that way. I looked at the number and almost didn’t answer, but then I wondered if something important had happened.”
“So, what was his advice?”
“He didn’t have any, really. He called to say they had decided to try to get in touch with my father. They thought maybe I should go live with him a little if they can track him down.”
“Well,” I said. “Least that’s not as lame as it could have been, right?”
“It’s pretty lame. He doesn’t want me out there. He hasn’t been in touch for ten years or whatever.”
“Can’t hurt to try.”
“The definition of ‘crazy’ is someone who presses button A ten times, gets response B ten times, but keeps pressing A expecting a different result.”
“You’re pretty philosophical this morning.”
“I’m an extremely deep thinker,” she said, and grinned.
We sat and watched the fire for a while. The temperature felt to be in the forties somewhere. I had the kind of cold face and crusty eyes you get from sleeping outdoors.
“How many marshmallows did we eat last night, anyway?” Delores asked.
“About a million.”
“We ate a whole bag. We’re a pair of Hog-a-thas.”
“We fed a couple to Speed. And we dropped a couple in the fire.”
“How about those idiot boys on ATVs? What was their deal?”
“Testosterone,” I said.
“What is that, anyway? Girls would never circle a bunch of boys on ATVs and sit there gunning their engines. It just wouldn’t happen.”
“I want warm food,” she said, pushing up and blowing her nose on a tissue she had in her pocket. She chucked it onto the fire. “Let’s get rolling.”
ELORES HAD THE HEAT BLASTING—WE WERE COLD—AND
everything was just getting settled on the way out of the campground, when we saw the ATVs. Four of them, all Hondas. I knew at a glance that they were
ATVs, the ones driven by the jerk boys. I recognized two of the helmets sitting out on the picnic table.
Delores looked at me and slowed. She got her crazy-evil look and wiggled her eyebrows.
She slowly eased her truck up to the first ATV. She put the nose of the truck right against it, then gently ladled the engine forward. The ATV skidded slowly sideways, directly into the second ATV. She goosed the engine a little more, and both ATVs skidded and chucked sideways, tipping and bouncing. I heard some crashing and breaking things, and
suddenly two boys shot out of a big tent, both of them in hoodies and boxers.
“Hey!” they yelled, but they couldn’t do anything. They ran back and forth, looking at the damage and yelling at us.
Delores stuck her tongue at them. I did, too.
Then Delores backed up and swung the nose of the truck away and laid on the horn. The horn was shockingly loud in the early morning.
“Do not ever, ever, ever screw around with a woman going west,” Delores shouted.
Y MOM CALLED
ELORES’S CELL PHONE AT BREAKFAST
. Delores read the number and handed it to me and made a funny grimace.
“Indiana,” I said when she asked where we were. “I think, anyway.”
“You don’t even know the state?”
“Where did you spend last night?”
“At a campground. It was fine, Mom.”
“I’m just sick with fear for you two. Delores was supposed to call me last night.”
“We can take care of ourselves,” I said, letting Delores’s failure to call go without comment. Sometimes my mom forgot to come back to things if I changed the subject. “I have to eat now. The waitress brought the food just this minute.”
“She did not.”
“Yes, she did, Mom.”
“I don’t get what the point of this is. Can you explain what in the world you’re doing, Hattie?”
“We’re women going west,” I said.
“What is that, like a catchphrase?”
“It’s a statement of fact.”
We didn’t speak for a moment. Delores slipped out of the booth and headed toward the ladies’ room.
“Mom, didn’t you ever just want to do something because you thought you should do it?”
She didn’t answer.
“I love Speed, Mom. I love him more than anything. I want him to be a horse for just one minute of his life. That’s all. Then I’ll come home.”
“Couldn’t he be a horse in New Hampshire?”
“I want to put him on rangeland. Imagine your whole life you’ve gone in circles. Imagine what that must be like.”
“I feel like I have, almost,” she said. “I think I know.”
“Speed has. If he hits a trail that goes left, he takes it. His whole body knows how to do only one thing. It’s pitiful.”
“But he can’t live on the range. The Fergusons said that was out of the question.”
“It probably is. But I want to give him a chance.”
“You are too horse crazy for your own good.”
“And Delores has to go west. Her mom is trying to get in touch with her dad in Oregon.”
“Delores is not your responsibility. Delores has her own issues, Hattie. I’m sorry to say it, but she does.”
“I spoke to the Fergusons and they said they have friends with land in Montana. They said you could bring Speed there if you wanted.”
“He’ll be okay,” I said.
“I hope so. I hope you’ll be okay.”
“I’ve got to go,” I said. “We’re having pancakes.”
“You always liked pancakes.”
“And always will.”