Authors: Jennifer H. Lyne
I went into my room, shut my door, and drove the wedge under it with my foot.
I had just stood there like a fool, not knowing what to do.
I barely recognized Melinda nowadays. A few months after Jimmy died, she had started including me in things again. She and I started going to McDonald's for pancakes every Saturday morning. We went camping up at Loft Mountain and looked for wildflowers, having a contest to see who could find more. I always won. I found some Indian Pipes the last time we went, and then Doll's Eye. I was pretty proud because only real hillbillies found Doll's Eyeâthe kind of mountain people who knew where the ginseng and the chanterelles grew but didn't tell anyone. I'd hoped we'd do all kinds of things together, like going on trips. Maybe one day we'd go to the beach. I'd always wanted to see the ocean.
But then about six months after Jimmy died, I woke up to find Donald in the living room. I had never seen him before. Apparently, Donald had flirted with Melinda at Food Lion the night before, when she was feeling down, and that was itâthey went out and he came home with her. Melinda needed someone to be nice to her, and he knew just how to do that.
On the outside, Donald was a charmer. He was sugary sweet. He held doors for people, helped them with their bags, helped the neighbors chop firewood or get their trucks out of the snow, took loads of trash to the dump. Ladies said to me in town, “I'm so happy for your mother that she found someone so sweet” and “Isn't he wonderful?”
It was all fake. Donald did everything to make people like him, but it was a setup. He was laying the foundation so he could call anyone who crossed him crazy. Melinda bought the whole thing.
But I began to see what he was really like. He'd grab Melinda's arm hard enough to leave marks, and she'd get scared and pull away.
After that, I said something to one of Melinda's friends about what a nasty temper Donald had, and she said, “Honey, it sounds like you're jealous.” One of my mother's old friends from Food Lion, Evelyn, was the only one who was suspicious of him. My mother wasn't allowed to talk to her anymore. Of course, Melinda wouldn't listen to me.
He was getting worse all the time. A few weeks back, when he sat down for dinner and saw a glass of water by his plate, he got up, grabbed Melinda by the hair, dragged her across the room, and shoved her out the front door. She came home fifteen minutes later with a bottle of Pepsi and apologized to him.
I felt like throwing up.
I picked up a
magazine to try to read about teaching a green horse how to jump. I had read that article over and over, and sometimes I just looked at the pictures of the horse trotting over the little cavalettis to make myself feel better. If you put those poles the right space apart, the horse'll trot right over them and not touch them. The horse in this article had a royal blue saddle blanket with white piping around the edges. I loved the way royal blue looked on a dark bay horse.
The walls of my room were covered with horse pictures of all of my favorite riders, but mostly George Morris. Wayne was the best horseman in the world, of course, but he was a horse trader to the bone, all about buying and selling. George was a classic horseman, a beautiful, elegant rider, and his students were the best. He mostly gave clinics nowadays, but he used to be the captain of the U.S. Olympic team. I studied pictures of him jumping horses over fences, how his hand had perfect contact through the reins, always a straight line to the horse's mouth. The stirrup was solidly on the ball of his foot, not stuck out on the toe the way many riders had it. He rode the horse, didn't pose or perch and try to look cool. His form meant somethingâhe did it because it worked. George's book,
Hunter Seat Equitation,
never left my bedside table. It was tattered and stained and dog-eared from the hours I spent looking at the pictures of the master riders from twenty, thirty, fifty, years ago.
means English, the style used for fox hunting.
just means good horsemanship. The idea is that a rider is always responsible for how a horse performs. You're not just there to look pretty and poseâyou're there to get your horse over the fences as efficiently as possible. The best way to do that is to ride well. If your heels are down, your leg is tight. If you're sitting up tall, you're using your weight the right way. If you're stiff, your horse will get nervous. If your hands are soft, your horse will listen to them. Riding well looks good.
I was a practical rider. I never forced my heels down or closed my fingers because I was supposed toâI did it because it worked.
My other favorite riders were George's students who were on the U.S. Olympic team. Their students, and their students' students, all rode a little like George: functional, workmanlike, careful but daring at the same time. They were there to make the horse look good, and they gave every horse a different ride. I knew that some riders who won the big shows leased a horse from some rich person for a hundred thousand dollars and posed their way to a championship trophy.
I had one of George's sayings pinned up on the wall: “Perfection .Â .Â . like any good technique .Â .Â . becomes a defect. Perfection gets somebody self-conscious, which produces stiffness, a mechanical ride, a weak ride.” I knew George would think I was a good rider, because perfection was the last thing I cared about. I was a rider who could ride anything. I'd ridden burros, mules, draft horses, ponies, racehorses, gaited horses. I'd driven a team, and I could drive four-in-hand by the time I was ten. I could jump a horse off a steep bank on a cross-country course, and I could gallop down a hill to a fence at the bottom.
The one thing I had never ridden was a “made” horseâa pushbutton, a horse that did everything for you. A made horse had been schooled until it was near perfect. You pointed him at the jump and he just jumped it. I couldn't imagine what it was like to rely on a horse this way. When I was riding a green horse, I felt like I had to damn near pick the horse up and carry him over the fence myself.
A made horse had been taught by the right trainers, the right way. He'd never had a bad rider on him. He'd never seen barbed wire or fought over hay with a dozen other horses. He'd spent his life moving from one clean nest of pine shavings to another. An expensive, insured, world-class horse that traveled by air, not cattle trailer. That was what I wanted to ride. The big German jumpers in the poster, with their crested necks standing square and catlike, tails cut bluntly below their hocks, as they lined up in the arena waiting for their trophiesâthey looked down at me and said, “Come get me!”
The riders on my walls smiled down at me in their show clothesâscarlet hunt coats, canary yellow vests, and shiny black field boots. A new pair of those show boots cost more than my car. I put down the magazine and flipped through the Dover Saddlery catalog to look at my favorite page, the dappled black bay horse handsomely modeling the plaid Baker turnout blanket. I wanted one of those for the red horse, but they cost almost two hundred dollars. The helmet all the equitation riders use, a GPA, was almost six hundred dollars. Der Dau field boots were eight hundred. Meanwhile, my mother and I were hiding from the meter reader and hoping he didn't cut off our electricity.
My room was a mess. I liked the idea of it being neat and clean, but some part of me wanted it messy. I liked the dirty clothes on the floor and the horse books everywhere. I liked it because it was mine. Sometimes I felt like a dog who brought things back to my dog bed, things no one else was allowed to touch. Sometimes I wanted to scratch around and curl up with all of my things and fall asleep, alone. Sometimes I wondered if I was a terrier in a former life, growling at people and scratching around for food.
I looked at the wedge in the door, a piece from an antique sewing table. Once, Melinda had a business as a seamstress. She tailored the uniforms that arrived by the vanful from the military institute over in Lexington. She could tailor those dress whites or those heavy wool dress blues with her eyes closed, and she'd made good money, especially right before graduation each year. She had four sewing machines in the basement, each one more beat-up than the last, but they were expensive and ran like tops. One day the institute hired its own seamstress on campus, and that was the end of it. Melinda said she wanted to start her own sewing store anywayâshe was tired of the uniformsâand she looked for a storefront on Main Street in Clifton Forge. But then Jimmy died, and that was that. She got a job as a cashier at a grocery store.
Melinda had been a solid rider, although she didn't have any patience for a hot horse. She wanted something quiet, and she usually rode a quarter horse with a western saddle or a Morgan with a flat English one.
She hadn't liked it when Jimmy started buying horses off the track, especially when they needed fancy shoes and feed and the vet bills started racking up. But what really pushed her over the edge was the hunter mare from Warrenton that Jimmy bought for nine thousand dollars, the most he had ever paid for a horse. He had seen her in a farmer's field, thought he could get twenty thousand for her, and gambled all of their savings money. She was a cute and refined dapple gray with a sweet disposition. She had supposedly won the hunter stakes at the Warrenton horse show, then pulled a stifle muscle.
After six months of turnout, I started trotting her up and down hills every day for half an hour to strengthen her legs, but she was still lame. They put on five hundred dollars' worth of shoes, shot her hocks up with cortisone, and gave her bute every day in her feed. Didn't help. X-rays, vet billsâstill lame. Finally, a new vet said she had degenerative hock disease and would always be lame.
By then, Jimmy was out seventeen thousand dollars, and my parents had nothing left. I had spent every day working the mare, so none of the other horses were exercised. The vet refused to come for any other horses until Jimmy paid the bill, so he sold the tractor and took care of it. Then they were living paycheck to paycheck, bills weren't getting paid, and they had no tractor to make hay. Jimmy started asking for favors everywhere, and it nearly broke Melinda, who was proud as hell and never asked for nothing.
FTER A WHILE
, my mother knocked on the door, but I ignored her. She kept knocking.
“Sidney, it's me.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “You okay?”
Whispering in her own house.
She knocked again, harder, and I pulled out the wedge.
Melinda opened the door and looked at my face. “You fall off?”
“He certainly didn't mean to hurt your feelings.”
“Poor Donald,” I said.
“Don't be so difficult. And stop fighting with everybody.”
“If that man ever touches me again, I'll kill him. I swear to God.”
“Honey, you have got to stop provoking people. Some people just cannot handle it.”
Melinda sat down on the bed, but I moved away from her. Ever since she'd started seeing Donald, I hadn't wanted her to get too close. Now I couldn't even look at her.
“They cut all my hours,” she said.
“That's your problem.”
I wondered if she had any problems that were just hers.
She got up and went to the door.
“Today is Jimmy's birthday,” I said.
“I know. I was going over to the cemetery,” she said.
It was a lie, and we both knew it.
“What are we gonna do about money?” she asked instead.
“You're asking me?” I said.
“I'm looking for a job.” She hesitated. “Donald might loan me money for rent, so please don't pick any more fights with him.”
“You ain't taking money from him.”
“We need his help right now.” She looked desperate.
“If we had money, would you make him leave?”
She didn't answer.
“You would. You'd get rid of him,” I said. My heart was pounding.
“I never said that.”
But I could see it.
“I'm going to sell this horse with Wayne,” I said.
“What horse?” Melinda said, spitting out the word
like tobacco juice.
“Another goddamn horse, eating money.”
I looked outside at the shiny grille of Donald's truck leering at me like a big set of teeth.
One time I'd told Uncle Wayne that Donald was dumb. “Dumb like a fox,” he said. “I tell you one thingâhe might be a mean son of a bitch, but he ain't no fool.” I knew that now, and I wanted him gone. In another state with no forwarding address. In jail. Anything.
When I used to go to church with my father, we always knelt and asked for forgiveness. Now I knew the things I was thinking about Donald might be wrong, but I couldn't ask for forgiveness because I wasn't sorry. Jimmy had always said to open my heart and treat people with love when things were bad. But I couldn't. I wondered how open my father's heart would be if he were here and saw what I saw. Maybe the Bible and the prayer for forgiveness were luxuries for those who didn't have evil at their door.
My mind wandered to the red horse, how he had strong legs and dense bones like an Arabian. What that meant on the track or in the show ring was that he could go for a long time without getting tired or sore. Those Arabs could go for a hundred miles in the desert. For some reason the Thoroughbred breeders ignored the soundest horses, breeding one famous Thoroughbred racehorse to another until they were too overbred and their worst traits were exaggerated. They might be fast, but their legs were frail, or they were bird-brained and skittish. Or they colicked easily. Or their hooves fell apart during the rainy season. Instead of finding some hearty Arabian blood, or a draft horse, or even a quarter horse, those ignorant breeders would just breed one Thoroughbred to another and make it worse.