Will you trail ride with us tomorrow Ann?” Mary asked shyly.
“You trail ride with this crazy woman?” Ann joked as she pointed at Dee.
“Yeah! And we found a new trail behind the ridge, it’s beautiful and we can take the dogs ‘cuz nobody is ever back there.” said an excited Colette.
“So how many logs do I have to jump and cliffs to go down before we get to this secret trail – You know it can’t ever be an easy trail with Dee around.” Ann laughed and Dee joined her.
“You could ride Ivy?” chimed in a hopeful Mary.
“Ivy? Didn’t you guys sell that prima donna of a mare?” Ann asked.
“Well, we did, but she kinda came back.” Answered Colette. Dee, in the meantime, continued to sip her coffee in silence, focusing on fingering through Ruth’s dense coat as if to look for ticks.
“I guess I don’t want to know.” sighed Ann.
Colette blurted out “Dee took her back and gave them back all their money when she found out that they were tranquilizing her to jump her.”
“Of course she did.” was all Ann could say.
“All right, time for girls and hounds to hit the hay. Lots to do tomorrow. Grab the sleeping bags out of the closet and just brush your teeth with your finger. I’ll get some sweats for you to wear for pajamas and you girls put all your clothes into the washer and get them started.” Dee clapped her hands and both girls jumped up, followed by the dogs. They hugged Dee and then Ann and headed for the door. Mary came back and gathered up the dishes and left Ann and Dee with their cooling coffee.
“I don’t know how you do it.” Ann said.
“Do what?” Dee sipped.
“All of it. This ranch, these animals, the kids, the fresh fucking pie at midnight, deal with me – all of it.” Ann stammered.
Dee laughed wearily. “I don’t even know why you’re here. Or for how long. Boyfriend trouble? That pretty boy boss of yours get ruled off of the track? Hiding from your mom again? Or maybe you have just left the dark side of life and decided to join us here.”
“Maybe I just need a friend.” Ann admitted.
“And you had to drive six hours north to find one? C’mon, I know you better than that.” Dee said.
Ann exhaled. “I mean, a real friend.”
Dee softened and met Ann’s eyes for the first time. Ann noticed that Dee’s hair was streaked with gray and that her strong hands looked bony, wrinkled and red. It hadn’t occurred to her that things with her ever busy friend might be rough as well.
“Get some rest, it’s a long way past your bedtime.”
Ann submitted to literally being tucked into bed by her old friend. She hadn’t realized how bone tired she was until her head hit the pillow. Nor had she realized until just then, that Dee had given Ann her room.
“Where are you going to sleep?” Ann asked wearily.
“On the couch. Mary’s mom may show up and I’ll need to run interference.” Dee said.
“Wow.” was all Ann could manage before sleep swallowed her up. Dee called Ruth up on the bed to keep her friend company and left the room.
Ann dreamed that she was driving Dee’s rusty old truck and a shiny bright red trailer. Inside the truck were the girls; Colette and Mary, Pete and Luke and strangely, Mark and Johnny. The trailer was full of horses and they were blithely traveling down a twisty coastal highway. Everyone was singing and laughing and then Ann realized that she was driving too quickly into a sharp turn. She took her foot from the accelerator and applied the brake but nothing happened. She pumped the brake and it went to the floorboards and still the truck and trailer barreled on down the highway. In a panic she grabbed the steering wheel with both hands all her strength and jammed both feet onto the brake pedal only to have the steering wheel come off in her hands.
She awoke with a start, still feeling the truck and trailer careening out of control. Ruth lifted her head from the bottom of the bed and for a moment, she was sure it was Luke. But Ruth was smaller, darker and younger. The hound looked at Ann with concern and a slight whine, then sighed and placed her chin directly on Ann’s thigh, sighed again and closed her eyes.
Ann looked around the dark room, took stock of the fact that she was at Dee’s place, that she had left Luke with Pete, that she had left Viya Con Dios safe for now at the track, that she had stood up her dad for a dinner date, Pax Kristi was dead, and she decided that Johnny was safe in Mark’s arms right now. A look at the clock said that it was 4am. Time for her to get up normally, but that today, she could sleep in until at least 7:30. She thought a lot about getting up and slipping out and driving back to the track. If she left now she would be there before 10am if she didn’t hit morning LA traffic. But of course she would hit traffic and the notion of sitting in the car for eight hours made her knees ache. She reached over and turned on the bedside lamp, careful to not move too much as to make Ruth stir. The dog’s head resting on Ann’s thigh was warm and comforting and she didn’t want to spoil it for either of them.
With the light on, Ann looked around the room of her closest friend. It was a disheveled mess. Books and notebooks stacked everywhere along with laundry in various states of folded and crumpled. Framed photos of Ann’s students feeding horses, being chased by goats or snuggling the ranch dogs. Dirty and contented faces looked out from the frames. High on top of one of the bookshelves sat a photo of Dee and Ann fifteen years earlier, clear eyed, cocktails aloft, bikini clad laughing loudly while hugging some Australian rugby player on a beach in Mexico. Ann had her own copy of the photo once but remembered that a jealous boyfriend had insisted that she get rid of it. She hadn’t thought of that trip in years. “We were both just girls then.” Ann thought.
Sighing, Ann picked up the book closest to her.
La Vagabonde by Colette. Ann flipped open the first page, relieved that it was an English translation. She might be able to muddle through the original French, but it would have been a struggle. Ann had her own copy at home, although it wasn’t quite as well thumbed as Dee’s copy. They had cherished the book over the years and compared themselves to the lovely Renee, the dancer and mime who had shunned love and an easy life for the life of an artiste on the road. They had thought her brave and strong. They had thought themselves so cultured, so sophisticated in reading and discussing it. She purposefully thumbed through the book to finding her favorite sections easily.
Ann roused herself with Ruth’s head still resting on her thigh and La Vagabonde lying across her chest. The little ranch house was stirring with activity as sunlight streamed through the eyelet curtains with forget-me-not blue flowers embroidered across the bottoms. Ann smiled when she recalled that the curtains were given to Dee as a handmade wedding gift from Ann’s mother. Ann remembered her mother insisting that Ann help with the stitching. The curtains looked pretty good for being almost 17 years old.
Ruth stood up over Ann and leaned back to yawn and stretch, followed by the obligatory ear flap that reminded Ann of Luke’s early morning ritual. She licked Ann’s cheek once and bounced to the floor looking expectantly for Ann to get out of bed. Ann was just rolling out of the warm blankets when the door shyly opened and two girls and the other two hounds entered bearing a cup of tea and a plate of eggs, toast and crisp bacon. The girls were still in sweats but their hair was combed and the sleepiness was gone from their faces.
“Where’s Dee?” asked Ann.
“She’s out feeding the horses. We’re just waiting for our clothes to dry before we go out to help.” said Colette.
“How come the dogs didn’t go with her?”
“Because silly, we were in cooking bacon for you.” said Tony.
Ann smiled, hounds were loyal to a fault, except in the case of food.
“Just tell me you made enough for you girls and for Dee too.”
“We did.” said Mary.
“All right, take these plates and I’ll meet you in the kitchen. I’d be silly to try and eat this food on the bed and not lose at least half of it to one of these ill mannered curs.”
The girls laughed and agreed. The took the food to the kitchen while Ann made her way down the hall to the house’s only bathroom.
Morning light struggled through the fogged bathroom window as Ann inspected her reflection in the mirror. Her face was swollen, not only from a good night’s sleep, but by the wet and salty cool air of the coast. Her hair, a wiry tangle of short curls showed clearly that she was due to dye her roots lest she let the world see the gray creeping in. She laughed as she looked around at Dee’s jumble of a bathroom, musing at whether or not the mess was caused by the girls or by Dee’s lax housekeeping. The bent towel racks, the cracked washbasin, the cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. The dog, cat and human hair squished into the corners by a hasty sweeping job done who-knows-when. The dusty ball caps and beanies hanging on the back of the door. Dee had always reminded those she loved and those she exasperated that “form follows function” especially in her house. She thought about Mark and Johnnie’s condo in Newport. How all the chrome shined and every inch was planned with art and colors and fabrics and lines that were engineered to meet at interesting and noteworthy angles. Funny that she could feel just as comfortable in either setting and just as loved.