Lilith

With cash in hand for the week’s gallops, Lilith walked to the corner store and bought two boxes of cereal for herself, a half gallon of milk, a six pack of off brand soda, a box of cat food and a bag of cat litter.  Trudging back to the track, Lilith thought about what her note to Ann Garrison might say.  

Dark Goddess – William Blake

On her right, traffic whizzed by at a dizzying pace. On on her left was the wall of the Los Angeles arboretum. Lilith had never been brave enough to visit inside but she could see the tops of the trees over the wall. They swayed in the light breeze and Lilith paused to watch and sway with them.

“C’mon, get in.” A crusty voice surprised her.  She looked to see Roxy Ayers parked on Colorado Blvd leaning across the passenger seat and yelling at Lilith. Lilith shrunk, still stung from Roxy’s insults.  

“Get your ass in this car before I cause a wreck.  You can’t just wander around here slugging all those groceries around. Get in and I’ll drive you back to the track.”

Not knowing what else she could do, Lilith pushed her way into the shabby car trying to gingerly nudge the empty cigarette and chewing gum packages from the passenger seat. She couldn’t suppress a gasp of surprise as Roxy gunned the engine as soon as Lilith had closed the door.

“Sorry about yelling at you this morning. I’m working for that fucker Keenan and he’s always got me in a bad mood. You did a nice job of managing that skinny little gray this morning. He’s sore as a wedding poke and wringy too and you galloped him nice and slow. I know you gallop a few for that old man, but we are going to need some help in Keenan’s barn – want to get on a few?”

Lilith stammered. Words would not come, her body twisted and she thought about springing out of the car but she knew she wouldn’t have time to gather the food she’d bought and still run away and mama cat needed to eat. Her thoughts were jumbled and she fought to make what she’d always heard was “small talk.” Something that would take the pressure off of Lilith needing to answer.

“How-how is Ah, Ann doing?” Lilith took a deep breath, relieved to have made a statement.

“Look here. It talks!” Roxy exhaled smoke through the driver’s side window.  “You know, some people think you can’t talk at all.”

“I can talk.” Lilith answered.

“But you don’t and that’s why I like you. Too many people talk all the time. Too much bullshit. Nobody listens and I get the idea that you listen to a lot.

“I like to listen to music.” Lilith exhaled.

“Yeah.” Roxy answered looking sidelong at Lilith who was leaning towards the passenger window, hands wringing the plastic bags holding her groceries. “Listen, I gotta go over to Ann’s house and check on her. She’s supposed to come home from the hospital today. Want to come?

“Right now?” 

“Don’t panic, I’m not kidnapping you. Yes, right now.  We won’t be gone long and then I’ll take you back to the track.  You’re staying above barn 101 right?”

Lilith visibly jumped and pulled the groceries closer. “Don’t be so jumpy, I’m staying above barn 104 and I’ve seen you head upstairs. We gallop girls have to stick together you know.  It’s rough out there by ourselves.”

“I – I thought you were married to a trainer and lived in some big house around here.”  

“Tony?  He was my boyfriend, but he’s an asshole and I’d rather have a tack room all to myself than to live with a know-it-all asshole. You know?”

“Yeah.” Lilith forced a laugh because it seemed like a sound she should make at this point in the conversation. She found herself having the first conversation with another person she could remember having.

“What’s Ann like?” Lilith ventured.

“Ann? Well, she’s one of us. Crazy bitch who just wants to ride horses more than anything and pretends she doesn’t hurt when she does.[ how do i write an autistic character who is smart, strong and her resolution is NOT that she becomes less autistic but that her unique world view actually improves the lives of the neurotypicals around her?  If Ann rejects her, then Roxy school her (love Roxy) and maybe both jude and enrique – who is the key to unlocking who raped her see her for her special gift with horses then she is a special kind of sage.  what else is special about Lilith the Night Owl? ]  

Unconsciously, Lilith rubbed her sore hip. 

“If it’s okay, can you just drop me off at my barn?  There’s something I need to do.”  Lilith felt a surge of energy to write her note to Ann. 

“Suit yourself.  But are you going to gallop a couple for us tomorrow? Be at the barn at 8:45 after you finish for that old man?”

Lilith began to sweat.  Galloping for Jude Keenan meant working in the same barn as Him.

“Hello? C’mon. I’ll put you on a couple of easy ones. Don’t worry.” Roxy’s car pulled up to barn 101. Lilith gathered her groceries and sprang out her mind racing for something to say to end the conversation.

“Sure.” She heard herself say before she rushed up the steps the the safety of her room, mama cat ,and her kittens. 

She closed the door and locked it. She placed the desk chair against the door and threw herself onto the cot with the kittens.

He heart raced but a smile spread across her face. Was it possible she had a friend? Would Ann Garrison be her friend as well? What would Ann be like as a friend? Could she show them the kittens? What would they think?She didn’t know if she would show up to ride horses in Jude Keenan’s barn tomorrow morning. The thought put a giant burning pit in her stomach. But the possibility that she’d be working with Roxy was delicious. 

But.

He would be in the barn. How could she be in the same barn with the man who raped her? She’d seen him around, heard his loud drunken and cruel laugh. He was the one who loaded that brown horse in the trailer the other night. 

Could she tell Roxy? What would Roxy do? What if Roxy laughed at her? Lilith replayed Roxy’s bawdy laugh in her head and it terrified her. 

She needed a plan. She needed to visit Roxy in her room. She said she lived above barn 104 but there were eight rooms above the barn and which one would be hers? 

Tonight she would visit. And maybe she would be able to tell, to smell to discern which room was Roxy’s. Maybe she could find a place to hide and watch Roxy go up the stairs and wait to see which room lighted up. Then she would know. 

Lilith curled on her side around mama cat and the kittens and drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face. 

Accepting Help

“We’d like for you to consider a rehab facility.  There are several excellent ones in the area.”

“I want to go home.”

Getting Up – Berthe Morisot 1885-1886

“Ms. Garrison, your pelvis is cracked, the leg is stabilized but it needs to be monitored. You will have muscle atrophy and”

“Can I go home now or not? Are you making me stay here?”

“As you know, we can’t make you do anything.”

“Then let me go home, I’ve got an orthopedist  I’ll work with and we will take it from there.”

The young doctor looked pleadingly at the woman who was clearly the patient’s mother. The woman mirrored Ann’s direct and stubborn gaze. He was outnumbered. He’d heard stories of  local jockeys coming into the hospital mangled from a wreck and hobble out of their hospital beds to go back to racing. But this was the first time he’d seen it firsthand and he didn’t expect it from a woman.

“I’ll need time to prepare the paperwork.”

“I’d like copies of my x-rays.”

“No problem, just give me the name of your doctor and I’ll send them along for his review.”

“The x-rays are of my body and I want them.”

“Are you a doctor or an X-ray technician?

“I’m the goddamn body that you took them of and I want them.”

The steely gaze pointed his way came from both the woman and her mother and he knew to get out of the room before his demeanor turned less than professional.

“I’ll see what I can do.”  He strode from the room mustering every bit of dignity he could.

“You were pretty hard on him dear.”  

“I hate hospitals and I want out.”

“Okay, lets talk about the elephant in the room.  Where am I taking you?  I don’t suppose you are letting me take you to my house and you haven’t called Dee that I can tell.”

“I told you, I’m going home.”

“And who is there to help you?”

“I don’t need any help.”

“Bologna Ann. Look, I know this is hard for you and unfair and I know  you like everything your way and pretend everything is okay but you have to let somebody help you and it might as well be me. I’m calling your father and telling him to hold down the fort and to send me some of my things.”

“Mom, you have things to do and a life and friends and responsibilities, I’m not going to let you wait on me.”

“I’m your mother Ann and nothing you can do will change that. It’s what mothers are for. I’d do it for your brother and God knows I’ve nursed your father through enough stuff.  So shut up and deal with the fact that we are going to have to learn to put up with each other for a while.”

Ann was beat and she knew it. The thought of her mom judging her house and her life made her squirm, but the comfort of having her there for company and to deal with the pain of healing warmed her.

“Do I have to eat your cooking?”Ann smiled mischievously.

“Every last bite.” 

“You won’t complain that Luke gets to sleep on the furniture?”

“Oh Jesus, do you let that dog get on my old couch?”

“No, he destroyed that couch, I have a new one and he loves it.” Ann smiled again.

Gayle Garrison rolled her eyes heavenward and sighed.    

Roxy and Invictus

“Good morning Roxy.”

“Uh huh.”  Roxy sounded terse and she regretted it. She promised herself she would leave her own bullshit behind and just do the job.  For Ann, for the horses and she would ignore the fact that she was working for an asshole.

“You didn’t post the gallop schedule on the board.  I left you the training charts.”

Roxy was busy pulling the saddle off a sweaty horse.  It gave her an excuse to keep her back to Jude.

Studies of A Horse’s Leg – Leonardo Da Vinci

“I thought Enrique would do that.”

“If I wanted Enrique to do it, I would have given him the training chart.”

Roxy swirled around with a saddle in her arms “Look, I’m not Ann.  Let’s just face facts.  I signed on to exercise your horses and that’s it.  I’m not your assistant, I’m just a fucking gallop girl!”

Both Roxy and Jude turned away from each other and stormed off to their neutral corners.

“Hey slim, what’s got you so pissed off?  How many do you have for me today?”  Charlie Clahain strode into the barn whistling and petting horse noses, his usual cheerful self.

“The prick is in his office and he’s got the training chart.  I’ve got to get that Red MotherFucker to the track, so go ask him yourself.”

“You know sweet darling, I’m always amazed that you can still eat with that mouth.”  Charlie flashed grin and whistled his way to the opposite end of the barn towards the office. 

Roxy steeled herself for her next ride.  Invictus was scheduled to work four furlongs on the grass.  He was in peak running shape. It was critical that she allow him to run just fast enough to stretch his lungs and not fast enough to take anything off of his next race. Just a good strong stretch, not a blow out. But Invictus was breathing fire.  

Invictus was already tacked and waiting in his stall.  Generally, Jude would have a hot walker walking a horse on the work schedule for 10 to 20 minutes before he went out to work, but Invictus was so unruly it was too dangerous for man or beast to have him in the walk ring before a workout.  

Tied in the back of his stall, Invictus pawed the ground and rolled an eye Roxy’s way. She reached to stroke his face and he drew back and bared his teeth with an open mouth.

“Fuck you, you big bastard.” Roxy laughed.  “If meanness equalled run, you could run a hole in the wind, couldn’t you?”

Invictus swished his tail hard and cocked a hind leg and fired out at nothing in particular.    

Roxy checked the tack expertly. Every gallop girl knew that a slipped saddle or a busted stirrup leather could mean tragedy. She checked the tightness of the wraps on the colt’s legs. They were wrapped perfectly, as well they should be for an animal of his caliber. They had an appointment to work on the grass at 8:35 this morning and timing was everything.  She picked up his oversized platter shaped feet and sighed.  The walls of his feet were brittle and shallow, weak and pale. How could these hooves support this giant and powerful body? 

Leading the horse out of his stall was tricky  business, you had to check and make sure that nobody was coming up or down the aisle, you went straight out of the stall and towards the walk ring, once around the walk ring and Enrique would take the reins while giving Roxy a leg up, all the while moving and then straight to the racetrack.  Ann had given her strict instructions and Enrique had echoed the same.  Roxy took a deep breath, unbuckled the colt’s halter and, realizing she had forgotten to look for cross traffic, led the red demon out of the stall on faith alone.  Fate was kind to her – she encountered no traffic. She marched briskly around the walk ring as Enrique joined her.  With no time to waste, he lifted her up on the muscular back and they were off to the track.  The colt shook his head and played while Roxy sat as quietly as she could. Mustering every bit of calm to nonchalantly check her girth for tightness and adjust her stirrups to the correct length while Enrique, whistling all the way, hustled them onto the track. He took one look over his shoulder to make eye contact with Roxy, Enrique winked once, she nodded and he let go of the reins.  The colt bounded onto the track flinging his head and grunting like an enraged gorilla.  Ann’s words played in Roxy’s head – “don’t take a big hold of his reins, it’s what he wants you to do, just let him go forward and he will line out.  If you start a fight with him, he will finish it.”

Roxy placed her experienced hands down upon his withers, stood in her stirrups and let her weight sink through her heels.  Her lower leg pressed into Invictus’s sides and he trotted down the racetrack, head bowed, muscles engaged and as businesslike as any horse on the track. Roxy remembered to breathe. She jogged the horse, letting him stretch his legs and feeling his lungs expel and then rip the air from around him.  She’d never felt such a powerful ribcage flex underneath her.  His neck arched in front of her and the  morning sunlight gleaned off his coat making it look even more like fire.  There was a hint of tentativeness in his step and she remembered his feet.  She looked up and saw the gap some 220 yards ahead of where they would enter the grass course and she could get him off of the synthetic track that caused him pain. The gap got closer and the colt got stronger.  She managed to finesse him to a quick halt and turned him onto the inner course where the smooth green grass was maintained only for a couple of races per day and for the occasional morning guest, such as he was today.  She nodded at the gatekeeper as she passed, when he went to wave, the colt leapt up striking and plunging, perhaps he thought the man was reaching for his bridle intent on denying him his well earned and much needed run.  The man jumped back and Roxy held on for all she was worth praying that this tantrum would end soon. Every nerve in her body told her to take ahold of the reins and pull him into control and every brain cel in her body warned her not to. 

Roxy could feel the eyes of Jude upon her from the grandstands.  His binoculars were pointed at his prized colt and Roxy knew that she absolutely could not let this horse out of her control. Roxy’s pride gave her the extra fortitude she needed to stay focused and ride out the storm.  She breathed as deeply as she could, ignored the beads of sweat forming under the brim of her helmet and kicked on, urging the colt to go forward on a long rein. He shook his head violently, daring her one last time to take up the slack in the reins and then headed down the track covering the spongy grass with bounding strides. Roxy still had half a mile to go to warm him up before she could let him run; with Jude’s binoculars watching her every move. If she could just keep him quiet and focused this would be easy.  She eased the horse to the center of the racetrack and looked ahead for the smoothest path.  The grass at the inside rail was a little bit rough and she glided him just right of the center of the track, each bounding stride getting bigger, each giant breath he took felt like bellows feeding a fire. The flames inside the beast grew with each inhale and Roxy tried to soothe them with the breathing from her tiny lungs.  Invictus glided over the grass, his feet no longer stinging, the embers of his fire building.  400 yards to go until she could release this torpedo, if not at full speed at least enough to quell him. The colt lowered his head, trying to drag Roxy up onto his powerful shoulders, but Roxy was wise, she lengthened the rein even more letting his nose dip towards his knees. 220 yards to go and her thighs began to burn.  She knew one move, one shift and this devil would throw his head in the air and bolt. She dug in and found the strength to keep perfectly still, her knees, ankles and hips all at the exact angle to balance this animal at this speed.  He waited for her to close those angles, to give him an excuse to explode.  The binoculars she knew were watching for what Invictus was waiting to feel and she waited. 50 yards to go – 12 strides, now eight and four and

She crouched just a whisper, the moment Invictus craved, the grip on the binoculars tightened and Roxy let the fire burn.  Invictus took wing.  His feet no longer touched the ground, the jerkiness that most horses achieve at speed didn’t exist here there was just air rushing by and green track unfolding in front. Roxy smiled in their weightlessness and the poles ticked by over her left shoulder.  Roxy’s internal clock was precise and she estimated that each pole, marking a sixteenth of a mile was going by in six seconds plus a heartbeat, a perfect workout.  There were only three poles left to go as she entered the final turn and she counted the seconds. They were flying by in less than five seconds each. Way too fast.  In a panic she stiffened, took ahold of the reins and rocked back.  The surprised colt was caught off balance and he braced and she felt it.  Just one step, one bobble.  Her heart stopped, her gut twisted.  Invictus caught himself and steadied.  No longer flying he galloped uneasily and crookedly across the finish line.  The binoculars lowered.

Roxy never touched the reins after the finish line, she let the colt slow himself, she was too worried that any pressure from her would incur the limping that she was sure must follow.  She never heard a crack and the colt never faltered, he just slowed. He came to a walk of his own accord and even stopped when Roxy sat on the saddle.  He snorted loudly at the horses on the main track, shook his head and headed off the gap.  Neither Roxy nor Invictus acknowledged the worker who opened the gate to let them off the track, both  lost in their thoughts.  Roxy waited for a limp, but it never came.  Maybe she had imagined the bobble, or maybe his shoe had come loose.  Maybe it was something that could easily be fixed and maybe, just maybe Jude didn’t see her pick up the reins.  Roxy knew that it was all just false hope.  She knew that something had gone wrong and it was all her fault.  Enrique was waiting to take them back to the barn.  

“I couldn’t see his work, but the clocker says it was really fast.”

“Too fast Enrique.”

Roxy saw Jude, binoculars in hand, headed back to the barn.  He would beat them there and he’d be waiting.  Waiting to hear how she had destroyed the best horse he’d ever trained.  Waiting to hear her excuse about why she couldn’t listen to a single instruction.  Waiting to tell her what a failure she was and how she couldn’t ride a lick. Roxy thought about jumping off the colt’s back and running for the ladies room. But the track was too small. She had to face the music.

Invictus carried Roxy back to the barn. She hopped off, not looking around while she unbuckled the girth from the giant ribcage.

“You looked pretty good out there. I didn’t think you could get him to the track, let alone to the pole and across the finish line. You went too fast for the first part but you managed to get him to slow down. Good job.”

Roxy froze. Didn’t he see it?  She mumbled something that sounded like “Thanks” and went to put the saddle away, stopping to strip the sweaty saddle cloth and drop it in the laundry pile.  Didn’t he see it?  She peeked at the colt taking a long drink of water before he moved off to a warm bath.  He had his usual mincing step on the hard ground, but nothing unusual. Maybe he was okay? She watched Jude as he watched the horse. She did her best to study the horse as she watched Jude’s face. She saw only admiration of the man for a great horse. Invictus nipped his hot walker hard on the thigh, threw his head in the air and pranced, thrilled with himself in his naughtiness.  Roxy excused herself to the track kitchen, it was time for coffee.

Julie at Home

Julie rarely spent  time in her downtown apartment.  She was often at her parents place in Malibu or with various friends.  Julie loved travel and found her spacious apartment depressing and lonely despite the great views of the hip downtown scene.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec Woman Before A Mirror 1897

It was odd that she felt compelled to be alone now.  She couldn’t put her finger on it.  She refused half a dozen invitations to dinners, outings, trips to Catalina island and a tempting all girls trip to a club in Cabo San Lucas.  For some reason, she craved quiet time to think.

Okay, she needed to admit that the accident set her off.  When she heard Lavinia Bleau’s super filly  crashed and died on the track and the great and mighty Ann Garrison was hospitalized – something happened. Julie needed to come to terms with her reaction to the news.  She needed to take a look inward and figure out why she secretly rejoiced that Ann lay broken and probably maimed in a hospital bed in Pasadena. She needed to tease apart in her mind why she hoped that Ann’s sweet little nose would be forever crooked and that maybe she would walk with a limp rather than with that characteristic bounce that should be reserved for 15 year old gymnasts. That her perfect body would be re-shaped into something less solid and round.  That she would have flaccid areas that had been firm and ripe before.

She entertained fantasies of Jude watching Ann not with admiration and gratitude and, should she admit it, something as close to love as she had ever seen cross Jude’s face but with love’s antithesis; pity.  

“Julie” she said out loud to herself “congratulations, you are a bona fide bitch. Yup, eat that you jealous, angry cunt.” Self loathing was not something Julie spent a lot of time on. But there it was. Saying it out loud made her look into a soul mirror and  face her ugly reflection. Now she needed to figure out why.  She hopped up and headed for the liquor cabinet. An extra dry martini or a sweet old fashioned sounded perfect.

 Instead of opening the cabinet though, Julie found her forehead resting on the door that held the liquor and she willed for the tears to come. They wouldn’t. Too many years of being rewarded for being forever peppy, upbeat – covering her anger with cattiness and cruel laughs, but laughs just the same.  Nobody wants to be around a bitch unless she’s wickedly funny and Julie was a wicked funny bitch. She’d given up tears long ago and traded them for high and expensive style, beautiful friends, sleek cars and booze.  

Gin made her wit razor sharp, vodka made her the life of the party, tequila kept her dancing and wine made her sexy.  

She lifted her head from the cabinet and thought about whom she could call. What friend would if not offer succor, at least be a distraction?  Her hand hovered over the phone and morphed into a clenched fist. Sinking into a kitchen chair, she realized she was going to have to go this alone and sober.  She tried to turn on some music but each song that played on her playlist was either too perky, too grungy or simply too young. She considered pacing, but her body was drained. She considered visiting her building’s workout room – at this time of day it was almost certain to be empty.  But the notion of running in place on a treadmill or climbing the Sysyphysian steps to nowhere did nothing to curb the helplessness.

The obvious thing to do would be to go and visit Ann in the hospital.  Bring her a nice gift, something expensive and stylish, give her a big hug and wish her a speedy recovery. It was a hollow platitude and even if Ann didn’t know it, Julie did. 

She had honestly thought that she liked Ann. There was nothing unlikeable about Ann except her courage, her self assuredness, her perfect body, her complete lack of need for attention and adulation, her integrity and her loyalty.  Julie kept her close to watch if and when Ann might realize that Jude would hand her his heart, his business, his everything if she would just ask. But Ann never had.  

Damn her.  The more Julie thought about it, the worse she felt.  This was going nowhere.

Julie mentally listed her own good attributes; she was a great friend – always there to cheer up a broken heart. She gave perfect gifts and even better parties.  She was an excellent daughter. She had never rained down scandal on her powerful father. She had kept out of trouble and she never (knowingly) dated married men. She went to all the good charity events, shopped at the auctions, supported local artists.  

God she wanted a drink, a friend, a distraction right now. Okay, back to the list: She was, contrary to popular belief, not dumb. She had earned her degree in Art and Design and her taste was excellent. She helped numerous friends with remodeling projects.  Maybe she could do something there.  Yeah, as if the local homeless shelter really needs a modernist interior makeover. 

Sigh. 

Maybe she should go on one of those vacations to some awful African country and change diapers at the orphanage for a month. Cooking and cleaning for a bunch of starving kids would surely scrub her soul clean. Julie slumped, she couldn’t even travel to Florida because the bugs creeped her out. The notion of having disease ridden flies going up her nose and into her mouth, not to mention the spiders and the mosquitos and the pinworms.  Ugh.  

Next thought; she could join some protest, find a cause that made her ripping mad and join hands with unwashed college kids and scream all night at the cops. 

No thanks. 

She had friends that served on charity boards, that might be fun. Or she could adopt a couple of shelter kittens? Every idea seemed more empty than the last. Obviously, penance wasn’t her thing. 

Maybe you are just going to have to live with the fact that you are an evil bitch. Maybe that’s all there is for you.  Maybe you don’t have a real friend in the world and your boyfriend is in love with a great gal and thank God the other woman isn’t smart enough to figure it out. You might just have to live with the fact that you are getting older and there is only so much that good work and cosmetics can do. You are getting too old to have kids and you have never liked them anyway. You’re  selfish and you drink too much.

Her phone beeped on the counter.  She had a message.  She pressed the button.  It was from Jude and it said simply “Lunch?”

She replied “No.”

After a minute she entered “How’s Ann?”

“She’s hurt, but she’s brave.”

Tears finally flowed from Julie’s eyes.

Peter Stone at Home

Peter Stone’s disgusted flicking  off the TV set roused the sleeping dog by his side. He was tired of baseball. Rubing the long ears and running his hand over the short coat and the thick body of Luke, he looked at the phone and wished once again that he could call. But the numbers didn’t make sense.  The tall girl, the one who brought Luke over, the one who smelled like sweat and cigarette smoke had written down Ann’s hospital number and left it by the phone, but try as he might, Peter couldn’t make out the numbers through his blurry vision.  The few times he tried to guess were unsuccessful and he was frustrated and feeling helpless.

Sleeping Bloodhound exhibited 1835 Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1802-1873

“She’s probably just fine – don’tcha think?” He asked of the sleeping hound. Luke responded by shifting his body and looking at Peter.  He let out a long satisfied sigh to let Peter know that he was warm and comfortable and that was good enough.

“Stupid dog, what do you know?  You’ve never been run over by a racehorse. But I have and it’s terrible. You just don’t know how much you can hurt until you’ve laid in a hospital bed with hoofprints up your back.  God DAMN!”  He stomped his slippered feet feeling feeble, old and alone.  He knew he was talking to a sleeping dog and he knew his best friend was in a hospital not five miles away and he couldn’t reach her. There was no one to call and nothing to do and such was the state of his life.

But it hadn’t been a bad life, that much he knew.  His riding days were glory days. Racing after the war was jubilant, people were eager for pomp and celebration. Peter was 18 and smaller than some of the south American boys. He could eat and drink all night and still make weight. Owners and trainers loved him because he’d learned to say something good about each horse. Women were plentiful. He liked the older ones, they were appreciative and kinder than the young ones.  He’d never left the west. Racing in California and Mexico was all he ever needed.  He’d had the chance to dance and dine with Hollywood starlets and mobsters. He loved riding for small trainers and hanging with common working men too.  

There were wrecks but bones mended and the boys supported each other – plus women loved nursing an injured jockey.  Owners were generous and hospital bills managed to get paid. After his racing days were over he’d been welcomed into the Teamster’s union and worked a multitude of jobs at the track, all for decent pay.  The work was easy, like taking bets at the mutual windows or managing entries in the racing office. It kept him in touch with racing and racing people. When he retired, there was enough money to keep a nice car – he’d always driven a Cadillac and to pay off the mobile home in the sunny park with the flowers and the palm trees. 

There were times when he missed his wife. She’d died of cancer some 15 years ago. But when he thought of her mostly he remembered her mean streak. They could both drink hard, but she could get mean. It certainly had something to do with Peter’s penchant for seeing married women. He thought he was so discreet and so clever, but somehow she knew and it came out with a vengeance when she got to drinking gin. 

They’d had one daughter, but she died in the polio epidemic of 1952 just before her 3rd birthday. He rarely thought about her until lately. She would be almost 60 years old now if she would have lived. Old enough to be Ann’s mother, making him Ann’s grandfather. He laughed at the notion, he’d never felt anything paternal toward his friend Ann. But then again he wasn’t the paternal type, or the married type. He was a jockey, and then he was a retired jockey and now he was locked in this tin can in a trailer park with eyes that couldn’t see the numbers on the phone for even his voice to escape. He couldn’t drive, walking hurt and the Dodgers were having the shittiest season he could remember.

The dog got up, stretched, and looked imploringly at the door.  It was time for a potty break.

Mark and Johnny in London

Mark looked out the window of the St. James Place hotel.  Across the street was Spencer House, where the Prince and “the Rottweiler” his second wife took residence. Behind Spencer House was the parade ground that surrounds the grandeur of Buckingham Palace. On Wednesday afternoon crowds gathered for the pomp and circumstance of the daily parade to change the guard. Drums banging and horses clomping in that particular way that only the British Empire could produce.  Mark listened to the parade with one ear and to Johnny’s resting breath with the other.  It had been a wild night and Johnny would likely be asleep for some time. 

Mark was hungry, but he wanted to be there when Johnny roused. Johnny had a special sweetness when he first woke up, maybe especially when he was hungover.  The moments of meanness from the night before were forgotten and what was present was this beautiful and somewhat lost puppy that Mark loved dearly.

Last night started well enough. Friends arranged for them to be on the guest list for an upscale rooftop bar in exquisite gardens overlooking Kensington. But the crowd was too staid for Johnny and they went prowling for a more exciting spot. Johnny was a master at getting through long queues and scored a spot at the front of the line from a few young and very hot Russian guys at a dank and sweaty discotheque near SoHo. From there, the evening got fuzzy. Mark remembered svelte dancers and Johnny’s smiling face as drinks and eXtasy flowed. They stumbled through the door of the hotel at 4am. Mark remembered a scathing argument on the tube with Johnny accusing Mark of everything from dishonesty to gluttony.  The arc was getting consistent.  Johnny; the life of the party, the guy throwing money around, his jokes hilarious and his actions wild, would dance and tease and invariably pick out a young Latino as his target for the evening.  On their way back, away from the crowds Johnny would turn mean and hateful. Steeped in guilt, drugs and alcohol, there was no limit to the hurt Johnny could inflict. 

With luck, Mark could get Johnny to bed where he would sleep heavily  and wake in a childlike haze with a contrite and loving heart.

This was why Mark stayed in the room, hungry and hungover.  He needed to connect with the kind side of Johnny.  He needed the closeness of his waking hours when there were few words, just caressing and nuzzling.  Sometimes, if Mark allowed Johnny get into an apologizing mode, there would be tears, but Mark had learned that these tears were not healing tears, they were the tears of re-hashing what Mark had already worked hard to forget.  

Hopefully, they would be up and about, eating, shopping and if the weather held, a stroll in Green Park and if it turned wet, a visit to the British Museum where Mark could lose himself for many hours. Maybe a quiet dinner near Portobello Road before the darkness came again.

Maybe Mark could talk Johnny into buying late tickets to the theater but he doubted if Johnny would be able to stay seated that long.

Looking at the sleeping Johnny, Mark felt waves of tenderness, worry and violence flow through him.  On some level he knew this wasn’t sustainable, but the thought of life without Johnny was unbearable.  When Johnny loved you, it was powerful despite the obvious pain.  But it wasn’t Mark’s pain that Mark worried about. It was the gaping wounds inside Johnny. Everyone had some, but Johnny’s ran bone-deep. Just when Mark thought that the analyst, the life coach, a new prescription, or Mark’s quiet love were helping, the wounds exposed themselves as having festered and deepened.

Mark watched Johnny’s quiet sleep.  He looked at Johnny’s broad shoulders, at his athletic thighs, at the freckles Johnny was always trying to hide, and Mark sighed.  Johnny was always trying to be beautiful and he wouldn’t accept the fact that he was undeniably handsome. Even in sleep, he seemed to want to jump out of his body and into something lighter and more lithe, like he needed to escape the heavy strength nature forced him to lug around.

Mark had always chosen bad boys.  Men with bad habits and cruel mouths. He loved a bad boy’s ability to say “fuck you” to the world.  He loved curling up in the soft spot of a bad boy’s psyche. 

Johnny picked fights with all his close friends most of the time over nothing.  He’d call a friend out of the blue and with surgical precision, he’d poke at the heart of their deepest insecurities. It was as if he was daring you to love him, always testing, always sure that you would walk away.  Most of their friends did. How could they not?  The abuse was deeply personal and nobody could be expected to take it indefinitely. 

 The only one he never abused was Ann. Johnny loved Ann so fiercely he even made efforts to keep Mark at bay – as if Ann was his special possession. Mark accepted and even revered this. He loved their tiny and amazing Ann too, but there was something about her independence, her pragmatic intelligence, her extreme competence, her complete lack of sophistication that charmed Johnny to the core. Mark often thought that Ann was the sister that Johnny never had or possibly the mother he’d dreamed of having. The daughter? The wife? Mark didn’t worry about the deep psychological need that Ann filled, he was just grateful that she was in their lives and she wondered if Ann would have the temerity to stay when Johnny’s testing ire turned on her.  Leaving Ann in the hospital for this trip was hard for both of them.  So hard they didn’t discuss it other than to agree that she would convalesce at their house. They would hire a nurse if they had to and they would wait on her hand and foot. The notion of healing their Ann together brought them joy.  Now, if they could just make their stubborn tiny Ann see the logic of this.

For now, it looked like they had a rare sunny day in London ahead of them. The darkness was hours away, Johnny was stirring and Mark went to him, kissed him tenderly on the lips and was rewarded with a sleepy smile and open arms.

Lavinia’s Only Friend

It was going to be one of those headaches that woke you up and made you feel like you haven’t slept at all. 

Lavinia rolled over in bed and bumped Jason who snarled.  She patted his head apologizing and tried going back to sleep.  Thoughts swirled and twisted leaving her frustrated, angry and restless. She should just get up, but the doctors warned her she needed at least nine hours of sleep to combat the depression, headaches and joint pain that plagued her.  

Both the psychologist and the internist advised sleep along with a laundry list of supplements and drugs which she took dutifully.  The Pilates coach would be coming soon and she would have to cancel if she didn’t get her rest. She also needed to get in touch with the insurance agent and find out how much she had insured the dead filly for. Her fists clenched when she thought of the stupid accident that caused her to lose a promising young horse. She made a mental note to call her bank of lawyers to see if she may be able to sue the track, the outriders the trainer and owner of the crazed animal that caused the accident. She also needed to call her father and let him know.  Why did everything need to be up to her? 

She reached on the bedside table and re-read the nice note Clive Ullswater  sent.  She read it several times, it was so nice.  She’d take him to lunch to show her appreciation.   

She flopped again in the bed realizing that sleep without some outside help was impossible. If she took a sleeping pill now she would sleep through the Pilates appointment at her house, but the doctors were adamant about her sleep needs and she was very committed to feeling better.  If Jason needed to go out, he could bother the housekeeper. The Pilates teacher was a nice girl who would understand.  

She fished through the pharmacopeia on her bedside table, found the Ambien, washed it down with the bottle of water and welcomed her friend sleep.

Dee’s Dream

Dee dreamed she was high on a bank looking over a river.  Across the river was a child, a girl child.  Sometimes she was recognizable as one of her students, sometimes she was faceless.  Dee knew the child was special – an introspective child, a child of a strange intelligence.  Both Dee and the child watched the river from opposite banks.  

A dog jumped into the river.  It was swimming for fun – enjoying the motion and the cool water and loving the challenge of crossing against the current. Dee could tell that she and the child took pleasure in watching the dog. As the dog crossed the mid point of the river, a tiger jumped in from Dee’s side. The child, Dee and the dog all knew that it meant danger – Dee leaned hard and watched the tiger gain ground on the dog now swimming harder and in panic. The tiger glided up to the dog and struck with a giant and powerful paw. The dog sunk. It resurfaced, struggling and bleeding.  The tiger struck again.  Dee ran up and down the river bank willing the dog to make it to the other side, sending pleading looks to the child on the opposite bank who calmly watched the drama unfold below.  For some reason, Dee couldn’t make a sound.

The wounded dog scrambled to the banks, exhausted and broken, it’s hind legs no longer working. Dying. The tiger made his leisurely way toward the dog from one direction while the child approached the dog from the opposite direction. 

Dee watched in horror  – what could the child do?  Would she be safe from the tiger? The child went to the dog as the tiger watched patiently.  She knelt down, cradled the dog’s head in her arms. Lightning quick, she wrenched the dog’s head and broke his neck cleanly.  The dead dog lay sprawled on the beach.  The child looked at Dee unflinchingly and walked away as the tiger approached.

Fides

It was the end of the school day and Mary headed toward the bike rack absorbed in thought.  She was supposed to go to Volleyball practice on Thursdays after school until 5pm.  It would take her 45 minutes to ride her bike to the barn and it would be dark soon after she arrived. With any luck, she could get a ride home from Dee after feed time. As if Dee would be in any frame of mind to chauffeur her around. But if she helped Dee with the chores then asking for a ride home wouldn’t be all bad. If the stars aligned, she could call her mom and brave the yelling and hopefully stay the night at the ranch. She didn’t care if the kids gave her a bad time for wearing the same clothes to school two days in a row. There was always something kids could pick on you about. 

Fides Quaerens Intellectum – “faith seeking intelligence”

Mary knew that she should call Dee and let her know she was coming.  She should call home and let them know where she was going.  She could call the Volleyball coach and let him[ Fides = the goddess of trust] know that she wasn’t going to be there. But she didn’t have the energy to listen to anyone tell her where she should and shouldn’t be. She didn’t have the strength to listen to one more adult go on and on about responsibility and accountability. What she needed was to smell and touch and be around horses. If that meant facing a dressing down from half a dozen people later today or tonight, well so be it.  She pedaled her bike and raced along the road as if it were a champion steeplechaser and she it’s promising new jockey.  They accelerated up and down the four winding and undulated miles between school and the barn.  As she rode the last mile up the canyon she slowed and looked around. She smiled at crows and robins as they flew overhead, she spotted three deer grazing on the hillside. She had to brake hard for a feral cat who crossed her path trotting jauntily across the road with a baby rabbit in her jaws.  

“Poor bunny” Mary exclaimed aloud. She cruised into the barn muscles warm from the ride, face flushed from the sunshine and the last uphill climb to the ranch gates. Metta and Joey were dozing in the arena together, their lips drooping and eyes almost shut.  Metta’s coat was less rough each time Mary saw her and her body relaxed as it filled in.  Colette had trimmed the scrawny hairs in her mane – it looked even and kept, laying flat on the right side of her neck.  Mary thought about how crusted and twisted her mane was the day she arrived.  Metta was still thin but she had lost the dying look she arrived with. Her legs, now cleaned and the scabs and scars beginning to fade had the look of the athlete that she once almost certainly was and Mary dared to think that one day she might be rideable. 

Her reverie was interrupted with three trotting hounds approaching, tails low, ears flat. In hound language this means “I know you well, and I’m  glad you are here – can we go running together?”  Mary dismounted her bike, knelt low and let the hounds surround her, their tails high, their kisses eager and happy. 

Mary parked her bike behind the tack room and ventured into the barn.  She took pleasure in the smells and the sounds of horses munching hay, the harumphing of the hounds laying down, flapping long ears and yawning. She righted a tub of supplements that the goats had pulled off a barrel and spilled into the barn aisle.  A chocolate brown face with an oversized blaze, small ears and large, intelligent eyes peered over the stall door and greeted Mary with a hopeful look. Mary’s heart melted on the spot.

For the last two years, Fides had been her special project.  A miserably failed racehorse, Fides had limped into Dee’s barn from his third last-place finish in a row.  The vet snexamined him and found nothing wrong. But as with all his races, he was wracked with all over body soreness the day following his race. His pedigree indicated that he could run distances yet his body rebelled and his owners were disappointed to say the least.  He minced into the barn painfully making his way down the shed row and into a stall where he lay down and slept on and off for the next couple of months.  Ann sent a note along with the horse “This is Fides, son of the great ZoAster. He raced three times and was last each time.  We took x-rays and blood tests and we can’t find anything wrong with him.  He might be the laziest horse I’ve known.  Your kids will probably love him.”

It was love at first sight for Mary.  The little brown horse basked in her care. After some rest, Dee put the first few rides into him and turned the reins over to Mary. “He’s lazy, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Take your time and there’s no reason that a horse built this well can’t jump the moon if you figure out what motivates him.”

Mary set out to earn Fides’ trust, which, like with most ex racehorses proved easy. Shy of loud noises and sudden movements, but naturally friendly, the progeny of the great stallion ZoAster were notoriously fidgety, flighty and intelligent – much like their famous father.  

Fides loved attention and Mary set out to teach him tricks, which he took to with alacrity. In less than a month’s time, Fides would smile on command, flipping his lip into the air revealing his upper teeth, he would fold his front leg and bow, his chest and chin to the ground and he would step up onto a pedestal each with just one word and one treat from Mary. Fides loved to please. He took to riding in the arena well, but trails proved a different matter. He would skitter and shy from a bird taking flight, he would spin and run from a fallen branch on the trail.  Water crossing was out of the question.  Fides could smell water a quarter of a mile away and would snort and refuse to go forward. Even stepping across a mud puddle could prove a problem. Mary engaged Colette to take out Joey, their trustiest and steadiest trail horse and they spent hours walking the trails together, soothing him with treats and kind words.  At one point, Mary would simply lead Fides on the trail, not riding him, but walking with him and giving him the time to stop and snort and smell a scary branch. She knew patience was her only tool and her reward would be great when she could gallop the lovely Fides across the hayfield and over the jumps. 

When Fides arrived, he was a well balanced, smallish horse.  In the two years he had been at Timshel, he grew into a large and beautifully conformed animal. Fides was a late bloomer whose racing schedule conflicted with his growth spurt.  His seeming laziness more a product of his body morphing into the grand animal he was today.  Mary felt like the luckiest girl in the world. 

Mary ducked into the tack room changed into some boots and grabbed and oiled jacket from a peg by the door.  She stuffed a couple carrots into the pockets and picked up a heavy wooden groom box from the shelf.  She slipped into Fides stall and he mugged her pockets for the carrots he knew he would find.

“Not so fast buster.” Mary smiled. “Let’s do some tricks first.”  Mary looked Fides in the eyes, broke off a bit of carrot into her left hand and brushed his face away from her hand.  “Fides, are you ready?”  She waited for Fides to acknowledge her with a look. “Fides, smile.”  She waved the first two fingers of her right hand in front of Fides’ nose.  Fides lifted his upper lip in a comic gesture and Mary laughed and rewarded him with the carrot bit.  When he had finished chewing Mary broke off larger bit of carrot. “Fides, are you ready?” She asked again.  Fides answered with a look.  “Fides, bow.  She stepped to the side and tapped him behind the elbow with the carrot.  Like a gallant prince bowing to a princess, the giant horse dropped his head, bent his left foreleg underneath him and lowered his front end to the stall floor.  Mary fed him the rest of the carrots.  When Fides righted himself, Mary wrapped her arms around his neck, buried her face into his shoulder and basked in his presence.

She spent the next 30 minutes alone in the barn brushing his coffee colored coat to a velvety sheen She picked the straw from his  tail and oiled his hooves.  She wondered where Dee might be, the barn was so quiet, there should have been some kids there for lessons.  Dee’s old truck was in the driveway where it should have been and the dogs were out, but there was no sign of Dee or of any clients.  Barn rules prevented Mary from riding alone and so instead of fetching tack for Fides, she patted him on the nose, put the groom box back on the shelf in the tack room and went looking for Dee, three hounds in tow. 

She found Dee in the house at the kitchen table, a cold cup of coffee in one hand and the other holding the phone. She looked up when Mary entered the house with a quizzical look which translated “Thursday?  You aren’t here on Thursday.  Is everything allright?” Mary shrugged meaning “Yeah, mostly.” And took the cup from Dee’s hand and refilled it from the coffeepot on the counter while helping herself to a glass of water.  She sat down and with her look asked Dee if it was okay to stay in the kitchen while Dee talked on the phone. Dee mirrored Mary’s earlier shrug also meaning “Yeah, mostly.” Mary made herself useful by going to the sink and washing dishes.  Mary surmised Dee must be talking to Ann’s mom, Gayle. Mary met Gayle last year when she visited for two days. Dee had loved showing Gayle around the barn and introducing her to the horses, dogs, cats and goats. 

“You’re kidding?  She won’t let you bring her to your house, she won’t come here?  Dee put her hand to her forehead and leaned heavily on it.

“So the pelvis is broken, but they aren’t going to operate? What else did they say?”

“So you met Jude huh?  Handsome devil isn’t he?”  Dee laughed and Mary could hear laughing and nervous chatter on the other end of the phone.

“A jockey?  No way, Ann never went in for pin-heads.”

“No, never heard her mention that name.”

“Really?  And he’s nice too?”  Dee sounded surprised.

“Is there any chance you can convince her to come here while she heals up?”

Mary finished up the dishes, wiped the counter and mopped up the spilled coffee around the pot.  She topped off Dee’s cup one last time before she turned off and rinsed the pot. 

“Look Gayle, we are all in your hands.  You figure out what she needs and let me know what I can do.  Yeah, I love you too.  Call me tomorrow.  Okay.  Bye.”

Dee hung up the phone and looked around at Mary.  “Thanks for cleaning up the kitchen.  I guess I let it get pretty messy.  You heard about Ann’s wreck somehow?”

“Colette sent me a text.  What happened?”

“It happened yesterday morning and there were a couple of news stories about it.  She was working a horse and another horse going the other way reared up, lost the rider and then bolted directly into them as they came around the turn.  She didn’t even see it coming.  Killed both horses on the spot.”

“Wow.” Was all Mary could say.

“There’s nobody here – I thought you’d have lessons today.”

“I cancelled them.  I couldn’t bring myself to teach and anyway, I didn’t know if I was going to have to drive down south to the hospital.  I would have, but I can’t get anyone to watch the ranch and so I’m just really glad that Ann’s mom is there.”

“That’s who you were talking to?”

“Yeah, Gayle’s the best.  Closest thing to a mom I ever had besides Sela Phillip.”

Mary knew that Dee and her brother had been raised by a single father who travelled extensively for work.  Dee took care of her little brother until he was swept away by drugs.  Mary knew that Dee had worked for lessons at any farm that would have her and that horses had saved her from a similar fate. Sela Philip took Dee in when she was 15 and Dee worked hard for her every day until she married and moved on to the racetrack at the tender age of 20. 

Mary knew that Sela was killed last year while changing a flat tire on her horse trailer on the side of the highway.  Sela was transporting a neighbor’s horse to the vet hospital on a foggy morning. 

Dee sighed heavily, sipped her coffee and asked Mary what she was doing at the barn on a Thursday.

“I guess I just needed to see Fides and all the horses and check on you.”

“Do you need a ride home?”

“If you could use my help, I could probably stay over.”

“Does that mean you need me to call your house and ask if it’s okay?”

Mary looked at her feet.  “Would you?”

Dee arched an eyebrow at Mary, who wouldn’t look up.  “You go out and check on Joey and Metta, throw them some extra feed, grab Ivy for me and Fides for you.  It looks like both of us need a trail ride more than anything.  I’ll call your mom.  Now get out of here and feed those horses.”

Mary darted out the door, skipping on the way, dogs swirling and ear flapping behind her.  Dee warily dialed the phone and exhaled in relief when she got through to voicemail, eager to avoid a conversation with Mary’s mom.

“This is Dee and I was hoping that Mary could help me with some projects here at the ranch.  If its all right with you, I’d like to have her stay over.  If it’s a problem, give me a call back, but if it’s not, I’ll just plan to have her at school tomorrow.  Okay thanks.” Dee hung up, grabbed her gloves off the bookshelf by the door and headed out for a much needed trail ride. 

Mary at School

“Ann got hert real bad.  Dee’s a mess.  Horse got killed.”

The Martyrdom and Last Communion of St. Lucy by Paolo Veronese

Mary got Colette’s text during gym class

“OMG” was Mary’s immediate reply.

English class followed gym.  They were told to read quietly for the last 20 minutes of class. Mary couldn’t get into any story.  Her mind was racing thinking of dead horses and Ann in the hospital and Dee pacing the barn the way Mary would be pacing if it were her best friend Colette in the hospital.  She tried to keep the macabre thoughts from flowing through her mind. Was there a lot of blood?  Did the horse break legs? How did the horse die? Will Ann be able to walk again? Who is going to pay the hospital bill? What was the horse’s name? How old was it?  

Mary knew that she should be worrying about Ann, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the dead horse. She took a pencil from her bag and started doodling on the back cover of her book.  She couldn’t help it, the pencil moved itself and a prone horse appeared, tongue lolling, legs crumpled, closed dead eyes depicted by a stark X. She tried to stop but the picture just kept coming.  Her furious scratching drew the attention of the teacher who looked disapprovingly her way. Mary met the teacher’s gaze with embarrassment. She tucked the pencil away and tried again to read the book in front of her. Her body squirmed, her neck ached she needed more than anything to move. Being trapped in the hard desk surrounded by students was stifling.  She asked permission to go to the bathroom. The young teacher, exasperated,  recognized pain on the face of a student who was one of her brightest and most attentive, excused Mary. 

Ducking her head and darting out of the classroom eager to breathe outdoor air and to move her body, Mary flexed her fingers and rolled her head trying to expel the nervous energy coursing through her body. She wanted to yell,  cry and to run all at the same time, but she knew she was watched from classroom windows by teachers and kids  and Mary hated to draw a scene. She walked as quickly as she could across the school campus, past the cafeteria that smelled of grease and sugar, past the noisy drama class with it’s clanking piano through the quad and to the least used bathroom. She was disappointed to find that she was not alone. The school’s bad girl, Becky Dinah was sitting on the floor smoking a clove cigarette. The sweet smell made Mary cringe.

“You look like crap.” Becky exhaled through squinted eyes.

Mary tried to ignore her, she wanted so badly to be alone and everyone knew that Becky was bad news. She inched towards a toilet stall but Becky stuck a thick boot with shiny chains and buckles in Mary’s way.

“C’mon, what’s up?” Becky growled.  There was a glimmer of concern in Becky’s heavily painted eyes.

Mary gave in, her body sagged and her head rested on the scratchy mirror.  She began to cry. It felt good to let go and the tears gathered momentum. 

“Dead, dying, snuffed out, toast, gone. That’s what’s the matter!” Mary knew she wasn’t making sense, but Becky was weird and maybe, just maybe she would understand her crazy thoughts – and if she didn’t, who cared?

“Wow, heavy stuff.  Want some?”  Becky proffered the cigarette to Mary.  Mary waved her hand no, but her body sunk to the floor and the girls were sitting side by side.

“What kind of a God kills horses and little brothers and grandparents and everyone you love?”

“Maybe it’s not God that does it, maybe killing or death is what we do to ourselves. How the hell should I know?” Becky puffed again.

Both girls sat silently, pondering. The bell rang and both girls hopped up nervously Becky snuffing out the clove cigarette and Mary wiping her tear stained face. The bathroom would fill up momentarily with chatting and screeching girls and neither wanted to be seen in such a sentimental and intimate pose.

“You’re pretty cool Mary. You’re gonna be okay. I know we haven’t hung out since we were like in 2nd grade, but I remember how fucked up your family is. And believe me, I know what a fucked up family is like.  I’m not sure how you’re going to be okay, but you will.”  Becky ducked quickly out of the girls room leaving Mary lost and bewildered.

Instantly, the room filled with gum smacking, singing and screeching, toilet flushing, makeup re-arranging, cel phone texting girls.  Mary lost herself in the fray of noise and movement and stumbled out into the crowded hallways smelling of smoking cloves and still thinking of dead horses. 

She didn’t want to be at school, she knew that. The idea of hanging out with other kids when her head was heading to the dark places filled her with dread.  There’s no way she can discuss the latest Vampire movie or tomorrow’s homework or the new guy’s acne with her friends. Colette went to a school across town and today wasn’t a barn day for either of them. Home wasn’t an option. She thought about going to the school office and asking to see the counselor, but previous attempts at that only had the counselor calling home or state authorities. Nothing she said in that office was confidential. 

Mary realized that she’d left her books and bag in her English class when she had escaped to the bathroom.  She picked up a nervous jog across the campus and entered the empty classroom, her teacher looked up from her grade book.

“Mary, I knew you would have to come back for your stuff, I have it here at my desk.”

Mary exhaled relief.  But it was short lived, the teacher opened the book to the sketch of the dead horse.

“This book is school property Mary.  You aren’t supposed to draw in it.”

“I know.  I’m really sorry.”

“It’s um, not a pretty picture Mary.  Anything you want to tell me?”

Mary made a grab and was surprised that her teacher, instead of grabbing the book back to her, pushed it toward Mary.

Look Mary, this next period is my prep period.  I can write you an excuse for your next class if you just want to stay here.  And I can give you some paper so that you can do your artwork on something other than the back cover of a book.

“Why are you being so nice to me?  Is it because you want me to tell you what’s wrong? Believe me, I know how it works with teachers, I know that you HAVE to tell the authorities everything I tell you. So don’t ask me anything about my life okay?”

“I’m being nice to you because you are a good kid and you seem to be having a hard day.  And you are right, I’m bound by state law to report any  suspicion that a kid might hurt herself or others. So you don’t have to tell me anything that you don’t want to. But you should know that we teachers really are here to help if you want help and there is a lot we can do. You’re a smart kid. You know that and you have some real talents. If you want to sit here and draw pictures of dead horses, please be my guest, but do it quietly so that I can grade these papers – deal?”

“Can I ask you something?” Mary sat down heavily and spoke very quietly.

“Sure.” Her teacher was part exasperated and yet gentle.

“Do you think God created death and war and stuff like that?”

“What do you think?”

“I think he’s a bastard.”

Her teacher smiled and twirled her long pencil.  Mary noticed that she had nice hands.  Soft and clean.

“I think God is exactly what you make him out to be.”

“How can that be?  I thought God created us and everything, not the other way around.”

“You can spend your whole life trying to wrap your head around that question.  In the meantime, you need to live – right?  So how about you believe that no matter what, God gave you the choice to choose what you do and what you believe in.”

“You sound like my friend Dee.  She even named her farm Timshel Farm.”

The teacher’s eyes flashed interest and excitement.  “Timshel, like the Hebrew word – thou mayest?”

“Yeah, but it’s complicated.  It’s also named after a racehorse.  Anyway, it’s all complicated.  My head is a crazy jumble and I’m not supposed to be thinking all of the bad thoughts that I can’t shake.”

The teacher paused and after a moment she took a deep breath.  This kid was smart and she was listening and she was clever enough to tackle some giant concepts.  She took a chance. “Well let me just give you some of the worst and the best news I ever got.  There’s a very old book, older than the Christian bible, it’s called The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

“Uh, that doesn’t exactly sound up-lifting.”

“Hang on, it gets worse, and much better.  Anyway, the book guarantees  that you will lose everyone you love and everything you have ever had. That your only true possessions are your actions.”

“That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Really?  It just means that the rules are the same for everyone. We will all lose the people we love and the things we cherish – it’s the way of the world.  It’s the same for me and for you and for an old man in India and a beautiful woman in China and a newborn baby in the richest family in New York.  We are all connected by this and we are all in true possession of our actions.  They are our gifts to the world.”

“Wow.  That’s pretty heavy.”

“I guess it’s heavy.  For me, it’s really light.  It makes me feel like I’m in control of some things and it lets me let go of the things I’m not in control of.”

“Like what?”

“Well, it means if my mom has cancer, it’s a new chapter in our lives. I didn’t cause the cancer and I’m not able to cure it but how I treat her as she goes through scary treatments is what I own. And if I choose to sleep through a beautiful sunrise, I own that. But tomorrow the sun is coming up again and I can get my lazy self out of bed and smile at it. It’s totally my choice. I can present amazing literature to 8th grade students and I can encourage them to read it, but some kids will never be moved by it, but at least I presented it to them and I showed them how it affected me.”

“Can I tell you about this dead horse picture?”

“If you want to.”

“She got killed this morning, on the track and my trainer’s best friend was riding her and now she’s in the hospital and I don’t know if she’s going to be okay. I know I should be worried about her, but I can’t stop thinking about the horse. I mean, did she choose to go out on the track this morning?”

“This was a racehorse?”

“Yeah.”

“So she was bred to race.”

“I guess so.”

“And she was running when it happened?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“So she died doing what she was bred and trained and hopefully loved doing? What if you believed that she was loving every second of her running right up until the moment she died?”

“So you’re saying that this dead horse is a good thing?”

“I’m saying that there might be worse things.”

“HOW?  She’s dead!” 

Her teacher looked down, worried that she had gone too far with this sensitive intelligent child.  Damn, why couldn’t she just shut up, give the kids homework and then go home at the end of the day? Why did she have to care about these kids so much? And now this poor kid was in even worse shape then when she came in.

“I’m sorry Mary.  I should have realized that you just needed to mourn.  It’s who we are as humans and you aren’t wrong to question and to be sad. It shows what a neat kid you are. So if you need to cry and be angry and draw pictures and write poems you absolutely should. All good art comes from pain and suffering. But I do want you to know. Well, geez, I don’t even know anymore what I want you to know. I guess I just want you to know that you are special and I’m glad we had this time together. I hope we can be friends.”

Mary wiped her eyes and looked away.  “If you have some paper, I’d kinda like to be quiet now, I promise I won’t bother you if you let me stay here for the rest of the period.”

“Sure Mary.  I’ve got a lot of stuff to do too.  Do you want to work here at my desk with me or do you want to take a seat?”

“If it’s okay with you, I’d like to stay right here.”

“It’s okay with me. Can I ask you one more thing?”

“Okay?” Mary was wary.

“Do you know the horse’s name?”

“I think it was Dolce Es-something.”

“Here it is, on my computer, I looked up the news story. Her name was Dolce Est Decorum.  Strange.”

“Strange?  Why?”

“Dolce Est Decorum Est translates loosely from Latin as “it is sweet and right. But, more famously, it’s a poem I really like by a guy named Wilfred Owen about how it is ‘sweet and right to die for your country’”

“That’s terrible!”

“Maybe, maybe not. Mary.”

Both women lapsed into an embarrassed silence, picked up their work and spent the next 40 minutes sitting across from each other working and thinking. 

At the end of the period, when the bell rang, Mary gathered her belongings not meeting her teacher’s eye.  She walked slowly to the door, paused and mumbled “Thanks, for everything.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”