Authors: Joseph Monninger
ELORES TOLD ME A HUNDRED TIMES WHICH STATE WAS
which, but I couldn’t get Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois straightened out. The signs over the highways changed, and some of the road surfaces varied, but it was all just concrete and light stanchions and cars whizzing everywhere. Delores said the roads were modern rivers, and that populations grew around them just the way they did back in the day when rivers carried most of the country’s goods, but I didn’t care for her analogy.
Late in the afternoon we passed through Chicago. We both sat up to look around, but the traffic moved so slowly that we worried about Speed. Then it started to mist, and we figured that was a relief to Speed. I had the map spread on
my lap. Delores said right around the bend from Chicago we could get to Wisconsin, then Minnesota. A friend of hers had told her that the sky opened up once you passed Blue Earth, Minnesota. That the West began in Blue Earth.
“Does Chicago look like Chicago?” Delores asked when we had assured ourselves we followed the proper route. “I mean, there should be a word for a thing that doesn’t look like you thought a thing should look.”
“How about ‘disappointment’?”
“Naw,” Delores said.
“What’s Chicago supposed to look like, anyway? All cities look the same when you drive past them.”
“The Bible says if you live among the masses, you’ll die among the masses.”
“Well, that’s awkward.”
On the northern outskirts of Chicago, still in traffic, we tuned in to Dr. Black, a radio psychiatrist who helped people with personal problems. Someone would call in with a complaint about their husband—he had been cheating, or his cell phone had another woman’s number on it—and we tried to prescribe the proper response before the doctor weighed in on the question. Delores was wicked good at it. Whenever a woman had a man problem, she would yell, “Kick him to
the curb, sister,” but then she got a serious look on her face and tried to sort things through. She nodded as she spoke. As soon as we heard the whole problem, we turned down the volume on the radio and played at being Dr. Black.
Mostly women called in with problems about men and children. Sometimes men called in and asked how to get a woman back after she had stormed out. Families caused their share of problems, too. A dozen calls came in about mean mothers-in-law, or fathers who needed to stop driving because of dementia, or an adolescent boy who wanted to get a tattoo.
“I’d like to be a psychologist,” Delores said during a commercial. “You sit and listen to everyone’s problems and try to guide them. They can’t get mad if it doesn’t work, because they’re screwed up to begin with.”
“You’d be like a dump for them, though. They’d chuck everything at you. It wouldn’t be pretty.”
“You might feel better knowing your life doesn’t stink as bad as you thought it did. And they get paid pretty well, right?”
“You’d be good at it,” I said.
“You know,” Delores said, “I once watched an old
about a sin-eater. This guy would go to funerals,
and the grieving families would lay out a big meal that no one but the sin-eater could touch. Really beautiful food back when they didn’t have great food. And the sin-eater would sit in front of it, and I think a priest would say something. I don’t remember that part so well.”
“Then the sin-eater would eat the food. He’d just shove it into his mouth like crazy, and he’d be gurgling and crying because he was eating the dead man’s sins, too. That was the only way the dead guy would get to heaven. So then the sin-eater would collapse, but not before shoving food into his coat pockets to bring home to his family. It went on like that for a lot of years until one day the sin-eater himself died.”
“Well, what did people do?” I asked, still looking out at the city.
“They starved the daughter of the sin-eater’s family. Then one day they opened the door to a spare room, and the sin-eater’s body was in there surrounded by food. The girl tried to resist, but her mother kept whispering, ‘Go ahead, eat it, go ahead, your father needs to go to heaven.’ ”
“Did she eat the food?”
“I’m not telling.”
“You are, too,” I said.
Then Chicago ended and I had to get money for a toll.
We entered Wisconsin and saw a guy driving a truck with a cheese triangle on his head.
E STOPPED FOR HAY AT A FEED STORE IN
, somewhere between Sparta and Onalaska. Two old men sat on a porch outside the store. One of them smoked a cigar. I couldn’t blame them for wanting to be outside. The day had turned soft and warm, and the sun felt strong. A blond cat sat perched on the railing in front of the men. We were ten miles off the interstate at least.
“Hay’s around back, if that’s what you’re looking for,” one of the men said. “Just pay Julie inside.”
We thanked him.
Julie turned out to be at least as old as the men. She was tall and well kept, with white hair pulled back in a spray behind her ears. She wore crisp jeans and a bright flannel shirt that had faded to white in spots. A pencil jabbed through her hair. She had a ledger book open in front of her and a pair of bifocals propped on her nose.
“We’d like four bales of hay, please,” Delores said.
“First cut is five seventy-five a bale,” Julie said, hardly looking up.
I fished the money out of my jeans. I put down twenty-five
dollars. Julie made change and slid the money back to me. She smelled like lavender.
“Can you pull around back?” Julie asked, slipping out of a pair of moccasins and sliding into a pair of muck boots. “I’ll meet you there.”
We went out.
“New Hampshire?” one of the men said, reading our license plate. “You’re a long way from home.”
“Looks like it,” I said.
“You bringing a horse to someone?”
“Never been to New Hampshire,” the man said. “Farthest east I ever ventured is New York State. Went to the Adirondacks. Pretty nice country, a lot like Wisconsin.”
“New Hampshire is pretty,” I said. “Cold and pretty.”
We got back into the truck and pulled around behind the store. Julie waved us to a tent where she stored the hay.
“You girls from New Hampshire?” Julie asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Delores said.
“I grew up in New Hampshire. Until I was five. You ever hear of a place called Rumney?”
“That’s where we’re from,” I said. “Next town over.”
“Small world,” Julie said, and looked at us more closely. “My father worked on a train line there. Milk train. They
used to bring the milk into Boston in the afternoon. Then trucks became the order of the day and they got rid of the trains. That was a darn shame, I promise you. Dad moved us west. He always did like cows. This is all dairy country around here.”
She pulled open a plastic flap and showed us the hay.
“You girls are younger than I am,” she said. “Just step inside and grab four bales. You’re welcome to any loose hay if you want to sweep it up. It gets thrown around in here when people pull out bales.”
We stuck our hands into the bales to check them for heat or mold. If you feed a horse wet or rotted hay, you open yourself up to colic; if it’s too dusty, you can cause respiratory problems. Julie watched us.
“You girls know what you’re doing,” she said, approving. “But that’s good hay. We get it local.”
“Smells good,” Delores said.
“Oh, one of the best smells on earth, if you like horses. I come back here sometimes and eat my lunch sitting near it. I used to keep horses years ago. Of course, I can’t quite ride anymore. Too much up and down for these old bones. But once you like horses, you can’t get them out of your head.”
We fit the hay under a tarp in the rear of the truck. Julie walked back to take a look at Speed. I scooped up a
couple armfuls of hay and pushed it through to Speed. He looked asleep.
“An old horse like that, you ought to put him to pasture for a day,” Julie said, her hand reaching in to pet Speed. “Let him catch up to himself. Have you been driving straight through?”
“We took a break last night,” I said.
“You can’t rush an old horse. Are you going far?”
“Wyoming,” I said.
“You feed him any alfalfa pellets? Any concentrates?”
“Mostly hay and pasture,” I said.
“We have some feeds with some aspirin in it now. Might be good for his joints.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Delores said.
Julie pulled her hand out and stuck it into the back pocket of her pants. She smiled. One of her front teeth lay slightly across the other front tooth, leaning to the left. She had good lines around her eyes. Happy lines. She had the ghost of a long laugh in her face.
“I know you’re thinking I’m a crazy, meddlesome woman, but there’s a stable out back here. And a pasture loaded with clover, all fenced. You’re more than welcome to
turn him out on it for a while. Spend the night if you like. I’d hate to see him overtaxed by the trip.”
I looked at Delores. She shrugged. We had one of those moments when we couldn’t quite read the other person. It was hard to know what to do. Maybe the woman was nuts, but she didn’t seem like it. And maybe she and the men out front would grab us and lock us in the cellar and make us eat chicken hearts. Delores and I could usually get around most things, but a straight-out offer proved trickier.
“If you’re sure we wouldn’t be in the way,” I said, trying to read Delores and figuring we could change our minds later if we didn’t want to stay.
“We had the stables for our horses, and they haven’t been used in a couple years. But we keep them up just in case. Those two old crows you saw sitting on the porch, they like a project now and then, so I send them back here to putz around. Water is hooked right there from that faucet. What’s the horse’s name, anyway?”
“Speed,” I said.
“If he’s as old as I think he is, you ought to give him a break. Tomorrow’s another day. He’ll be stronger for a rest. They sweat a lot of water in these trailers. Just no fires. Promise me that. Town’s not far away, so you can run in there for
a pizza or something. No one will bother you. No one will even know you’re out here except for me and my husband, Jack. Our house is just an eighth of a mile down.”
She examined us closely.
“You’re not into drugs or any of that stuff, are you?”
“No,” Delores said, stretching things like she does when she pretends to speak French, “we’re straight-edge.”
“What in the world is that?”
“We keep our senses pure. It’s kind of a way.”
Julie shook her head.
“What are your names, anyway?”
We introduced ourselves.
“I’d no more trust anyone who is straight-edge than I’d trust a born-again Christian,” Julie said. “Life’s more rounded than straight-edged. Just don’t do any drugs out here and don’t bring any boys out from town after you. That’s the deal.”
I nodded. Delores shook hands with Julie.
“Should be a good moon,” Julie said. “Mind if I help you off-load Speed? It’s been a while since I’ve handled a horse.”
“Sure,” I said.
Julie put her hand up to silence us.
“Jack!” she yelled. “You got the store.”
“Jack!” she yelled again. “You got the store.”
A soft voice answered, “Okay.”
“A man always hears the first time,” Julie said, smiling at us, “but he makes you tell him twice. Especially if he’s your husband. Men have their tricks. Don’t ever think they don’t. Now just bring your truck through and we can put Speed right in the middle of the pasture. He’ll have a nice night there, and you two can use a break, I bet. Wait till Jack hears we have a horse out back. He’ll flip.”
E SET UP THE TENT ON A FLAT PIECE OF MEADOW NOT FAR
from the sheep fence that corralled the pasture. It was an L.L. Bean Eureka two-person tent, green, with good zippers and a tight fly. The grass folded down under it so that when we slid in to try it out, the sleeping bags felt fluffy and soft. I could have fallen asleep on the spot, but Delores dragged me out and made me promise we’d go into town.
We had a moment then. It snuck in on us, because that part of Wisconsin was not anyone’s idea of a postcard. But the sun lay about two fingers off the horizon, and it cut down hard and soft at the same time, reminding you of summer and autumn both, and it picked up old Speed and turned him large and shadowy and pure. His silhouette stretched almost
across the pasture, and he moved along eating, his tail flicking at late flies, and each step he took you heard through the ground. It was something old and pretty, back in the day of horses, and I had this romantic idea that someday I would have horses, and a house off a meadow, and we would have good, clean water for the animals and a wide porch where we could sit and watch them. It wasn’t this place. This was just the back lot of a store, but it had the suggestion of something better, kinder, and I knew we both sensed it, Delores and me. Speed looked beautiful and calm, and I was glad Julie talked us into stopping. And the tent waited, soft and sweet, and tonight we would sleep comfortably, and Speed would be free under a big moon to feel his heart leaning west.
“Pretty here,” Delores said, seeing it all, too.
“She’s a crazy old lady.”
“She likes horses, is all,” I said. “We’d be like that if we saw two girls going along. I mean, if we were old ladies and saw them.”
“I guess so,” Delores agreed.
“Women going west,” I said. “That’s what we are.”
“She was funny about her husband. Come on, let’s go get a pizza.”
It was no big deal to weave our way back out to the main
highway and turn left. Delores switched on some country music, and we drove with the windows down. I liked that feeling right then. We felt good and tired and headed toward a decent meal. A sign told us town rested six miles away. We drove slow and easy. I held my hand out and let the wind tug it up and down.
The phone rang. It surprised us both because we had figured we were out of range. I picked it up, looked at the caller ID, and mouthed to Delores it was from our friend Paulette. I showed the phone to Delores and raised my eyebrows to ask if I should answer it. Before Delores responded, the phone cut out. Then it rang again.