Authors: Joseph Monninger
“Do I answer it?” I asked.
Delores shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Hello,” I said.
“Hattie? Is that you? Where in the world are you two?”
It was Paulette.
“Wisconsin,” I said.
“You guys just took off!” she yelled, her voice going up on the last word. “I am
“We took Speed to give him a vacation,” I said.
“I know! Your parents have been trying to find out where you are. They called the cops!”
Delores looked at me. She slowed the truck.
“I don’t know all the details, but Delores’s mom called over here. So did your dad—or, no, Delores’s dad. I didn’t even know she had a dad.”
“Your dad called,” I whispered to Delores, covering the mouthpiece of the phone.
“What?” Delores asked, her brows knitting. But Paulette went on talking.
“I guess Delores’s mom called him and said you were heading west. He had a big tizz and threatened to call the police. Her cousin Richard, too, he wanted to call the police because you have some sort of van or trailer. I would have covered for you two, but I didn’t know!”
“We didn’t want to get you involved,” I said. “We didn’t tell anyone. That way no one can be blamed.”
“Okay, I won’t let it hurt my feelings, but I am jealous. Really jealous. It’s so dull here. You wouldn’t believe how dull.”
“What did Delores’s dad say?” I asked.
“He asked if I knew where you were. I said no, I didn’t even know about this. He called it a caper. Can you believe it? Someone actually called it a caper. I guess he’s up in arms. Delores’s mom called my mom, and your mom is in it, too,
Hattie. I couldn’t sort it all out. I’ve been trying to call you for two days, but you don’t pick up.”
“Sorry,” I said. “We’ve been turning the phone off. And we’ve been out of range a lot. We don’t check messages on purpose.”
“I don’t blame you, now that I know what’s going on. You guys are crazy!”
“What about the cops?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t know if it was for real or not. Delores’s dad said she had taken a minor across a state line and that was against the law. He sounded like a dink. Don’t tell Delores I said that, though.”
“She doesn’t really know him.”
“I guess her mom is upset at his reaction. All heavy-handed and everything. She just called to let him know you might be heading out that way. Then he became all Mr. Parent and started wigging out on everyone. He called Delores’s mom irresponsible. Then Larry got involved and told him to stay off the phone if that was the way he was going to talk. You know, that chest-to-chest stuff.”
“What?” Delores said. “Tell me.”
She pulled over and I gave her the phone. We switched places. She made Paulette repeat everything. She held one
finger in her left ear and kept the phone pressed close to her right. I more or less knew how the conversation went by the questions she asked. Paulette’s voice sounded like a high, excited insect on the other end.
Delores thanked Paulette and hung up as we entered the outskirts of town.
“It’s official,” Delores said, “we’re criminals.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“And now he’s the daddest of dads.”
“I know. Superdad. It’s too freaking weird.”
“Do you think the cops are actually after us?”
“The cops? Who knows? We’re not hard to spot. A horse trailer and New Hampshire plates in Wisconsin. We’d better play it like they’re after us anyway.”
“You think they’ll shoot us?”
“It’s serious, Hattie.”
“We’ll stay on back roads.”
“We’re going to have to,” Delores said. “We don’t have a choice.”
“We should have told Paulette to find out more information. She should be our spy.”
“I’m still trying to get over the fact that my dad’s involved. Or even that my mom knew how to get in touch with him.”
She suddenly got up on her knees and stuck her head out the window. She yelled into the wind coming past, letting out some noise she had inside her. A kid on a bike turned to look at us. He nodded. Delores slid back inside. She shook her head.
“Pig spit,” she said.
“We’re in it now.”
“This is awkward,” Delores said.
We both started laughing. I’m not sure why. But we kept laughing. Delores said something about Larry coming to get us in his El Camino, and that became an image, Larry roaring west, his mullet waving in the breeze, the vehicle, half truck, half car, Johnny Cash on the radio, only Johnny Cash, and Larry would be decked out in black and silver, with boots and spurs, and Delores’s dad would start from the other side of the country, and they would have a showdown, a square-off right in Wisconsin or Minnesota. We kept adding to the absurdity of it, and that made us laugh harder. Then we talked about how it must have sounded to her dad. He hadn’t heard word one about his kid in a decade and then he gets a phone call to tell him she’s heading across the country in his direction.
By the time we finished with all that, I had parked outside of Frand’s Hardware & Paint store. We climbed out and stood
for a second, stretching. A raised walk fronted the stores. A toy railroad town, I thought. A town that had climbed onto a train and left about fifty years ago, leaving bones behind.
“I want to get some nail polish,” Delores said, spotting an open drugstore. “We can ask inside about pizza.”
We crossed the street and went inside. The drugstore smelled like cotton swabs and hair spray. Delores wandered the aisles until she found a polish display. She selected a bottle called Ruby Red Party. She held it next to her face and squinted in the mirror. She said it picked up her skin tone.
We paid and asked a young girl at the counter where we could get a pizza.
“Down the block,” she said, pointing north.
“Is it good?”
The girl shrugged. As she did, Delores’s phone rang again.
ELORES DIDN’T RECOGNIZE THE NUMBER, AND SHE
refused to answer it.
“It could be Larry,” she said. “Or my dad. Too freaky either way.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t answer the phone anymore.”
“Maybe.” She slipped the phone into her back pocket.
“Let’s get pizza,” she said.
We ordered a half pepperoni, half mushroom pie from a tall, greasy-looking boy who wore a white chef’s cap and a striped shirt. I could tell it made him nervous to have two girls talking to him. Delores grabbed two orange sodas and a bunch of napkins, and we sat at a white plastic table near the window. We were the only customers. We sat and watched the sun disappear. It cast a reflection on a window across the street and burned for an instant before dimming.
“You know, it’s weird,” Delores said, twisting open the orange soda. “All the times you think about your dad getting in touch … you have these fantasies. You figure he’ll ride up one day and say what a mistake he made to ignore you all these years, then take you out and buy you beautiful clothes and a new car or something, and he’ll tell you he’s really rich and he wants you to come live with him, and he has no other kids, you know, all that stuff. And he’ll have some great explanation about why he wasn’t in touch, and it will make sense, and you will know, voila, that was the reason all along. Everything clicks into place, and just like that you can go forward.”
“But it’s not like that,” I said. “It’s never like that. Whenever I see my dad, it’s just this guy who’s supposed to be more to me than he is. It’s never what you think it will be.”
She shook her head.
“No, it isn’t,” she said.
She started to get gloomy, which can go a long way inside her, so I changed the subject. I started talking about horses. It usually made us feel better. Delores loved Arabs, horses ridden by Bedouins on the Arabian peninsula that are prized for their endurance and elegant posture. I loved paints, the pinto horses bred from crossing quarter horses or Thoroughbreds. We talked about what we liked about each breed, their virtues and shortcomings, and we talked about one day getting two horses and riding them deep into the mountains. Probably in Wyoming, we said, but maybe California. Delores had once run into a fisherman who had taken a horse trip up into the California’s Sierra Madres after trout, and for some reason that had stuck with us both.
We talked about riding an Arab and a paint along a trail up a mountain. Maybe, we said, we would spend all summer just drifting and horse camping. We could do that. Cowboys used to do that all the time, which changed the subject a little, because Delores claimed you could still get work as a cowboy. She said they still collected cattle on open range on horseback, and if you were willing to be in a saddle twelve hours a day, and sleep out, you could get work. She wondered what it would be like being a woman doing that kind of work, if the men would leave you alone.
“Here’s your pizza,” the boy said when he brought it over. “If you want anything like hot peppers or extra cheese, it’s up on the condiment table.”
Delores said, then rattled off something else in her fake French.
“Excuse me?” the boy said, blushing.
Delores whacked some French at him again, and even knowing what she was doing, I couldn’t quite tell if she was speaking French. She grinned when she finished, charming as anything, and the boy nodded as if he understood.
“So, you’re not from around here?” the boy said.
“We’re from Montreal,” I said in slow English. “We’re French Canadian. My friend doesn’t speak much English.”
“Ohhhhh,” the boy said, as if he had just figured out gravity.
“Can you tell me, please,” Delores said in exaggerated English, as she pulled a slice of pizza onto her plate, “whether it’s true that Pluto is no longer a planet in the United States?”
“What?” the boy asked.
“Pluto. Is it a planet here?”
The boy cocked his head.
“Oh, you mean, were they from here? In history, you mean?” he asked, which didn’t make any sense.
“Are they?” she said, which didn’t mean anything either.
The boy mumbled something and excused himself, saying he had to get a pizza out of the oven. Delores watched him go and took a big bite out of her slice. A fleck of tomato sauce touched her cheek and left a shadow there. She grinned.
E PASSED A COP ON THE WAY OUT OF TOWN
pizza box sat between us with four leftover slices for breakfast. The cop car took up a slanted spot, pointed toward us, near an Exxon station at the edge of town. We didn’t look left or right. We kept our eyes ahead. I drove two miles per hour below the speed limit. The cop had no reason to stop us unless a taillight had gone out or he happened to be bored.
“Is he coming after us?” Delores whispered.
“No,” I said, glancing in the mirror. “I don’t think so.”
“We’re going to have to figure something out,” she said.
“What if we changed license plates?”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Delores said. “That would change our profile.”
“You think your dad actually called the police?”
“Hard saying, not knowing,” she said, which was a New Hampshire phrase we always used.
I almost missed the turn for the feed store. It looked different at night. When I pulled around the store, I saw
another pickup parked near the tent. My lights picked up Julie, who raised her hand to wave. I parked the truck and we slid out.
“Came down to check on you all,” Julie said, walking toward us. “Fact is, I was bored at home. Nothing on the TV, and Jack’s already asleep. I thought I’d come down and say good night to Speed. I guess I still have that horse bug I can’t quite scratch.”
“You could have a horse out here,” I said. “You’ve got the land.”
“Oh, I suppose,” she said. “But Jack said he’s tired of the chores and the upkeep. Vet bills, you know. A horse just eats money, but I bet you two know that.”
“Still, if you love them,” Delores said, “it’s worth it.”
“I had a friend with a horse, and she let me go over and ride when I liked. That was the best of both worlds. I didn’t have to do much for the horse except comb him out when I finished. Beautiful horse, an Arab. Named Lemon.”
“Can you still ride him?”
She shook her head.
“The friend died. Breast cancer. And one thing led to another, property sold, and so on. Lemon got bought by a family in Ohio, I think.”
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“You want to ride Speed?” Delores said. “Just bareback for a little?”
Julie didn’t say anything. Then she said, “I guess that’s what I’ve been wanting to do.”
I grabbed our headlamps out of our truck and handed one to Delores. We kept Julie between us as we walked out toward Speed. The meadow grass had bent over in the first frosts, and now it rested in hummocks and burls. Julie took her time. Once she put her hand on my arm for balance, and afterward I kept my arm out for her to use.
Speed looked up when we reached him, but he had settled into a good round of eating and hardly bothered with us. Julie left the space between us and spent a few minutes petting him. She ran her hands along his back, then down his sides. She combed his mane lightly with her fingers.
“I love every last thing about a horse,” she said quietly. “I always have.”
“You want to climb up?” Delores asked. “It’s no problem.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe this is enough.”
“We’ll give you a hand up,” I said. “He won’t mind, and he won’t go anywhere. He’s happy to eat.”
“How old is he?” Julie asked, her hands petting him over and over.
“We don’t know, really,” I said. “He was a pony-ride horse in Massachusetts. The vet who worked on the other horses in the stable took a guess and said over twenty, but he couldn’t pin it down much more than that. Might be close to thirty.”
“He was probably a handsome boy in his day,” she said.
“He’s a good horse,” I said, and felt my eyes tearing.
“Put me on him,” Julie said. “Please.”
So we did. Delores stood on one side and I stood on the other and we gave her a hand up. She hung across Speed for a second, and we had to help move her legs around so she could straddle him. Speed lifted his head. She grabbed his mane and sat still for a second.