Lisa Maguire Fiction

A Sumbitch Mare

Otis felt a slack in the rope and pulled. She bounded through the open door, running everywhere and nowhere. Roz sighed, cursed herself, and retreated to the shed to scoop a handful of sweet feed. The grain, which had a thickish scent of molasses so delicious even Roz had felt the urge to sprinkle it on her morning yogurt, might possibly entice Otis to stand still long enough for Roz to catch hold of the lead rope.

Idiot. Roz’s muttering was half directed to Otis and half directed to herself, who was plainly an even bigger fool than the mare for 1) trying to answer her cell while leading Otis back to her box, and 2) not latching the barn door while she had Otis off the cross-ties.

Roz ran through her tick list of things that could go wrong. The footing in the paddock, dirt encrusted with hard snow, was uneven. Then there were the geldings turned out there. Otis had always been turned out by herself. She wasn’t exactly a bully, but she did like to mix it up. She was a social scientist, always experimenting, her actions seeking reactions. Otis might consider taking the fence, but on Roz’s list of risks, this was at the very bottom. Behind the property were mouse-colored hills striated with old snow. Otis might want to get there, for no other reason except that it was away from here, but it would require gauging how high she would have to jump to clear the fence. Otis was used to jumping fences, fences bigger than this, but there was always a hand at the controls, telling her yes.

“Rosa-leeendah,” sang Manuel, rubbing his sleepy face with a flannel shirt tail.

“Got the turn-out list?”

“Later. Gotta catch a horse.”

“You can’t catch that mare. You gotta talk soft,” said Roy.

“Can you finish sweeping up in here?” Roz called out as she strode down the long rows of loose boxes to the barn door, sweet feed in hand. Roz had met Manny and Roy many years before, during her short career as an exercise rider at Monmouth. As soon as she could afford employees, she’d brought them here. They were good guys, but if she let them, they would stand around all day long talking about the best way to do anything.

“Like I always say, first you get that sumbitch by his big old nose. You block those airways,” Roy would growl, clutching the air with a tiny, gnarled black fist. “You got yourself a sumbitch who’ll do whatever you want, any hawse, even Man O’ War.” Manny would stop to lean on his pitch fork, nodding.
Or: Roz might be leading a horse past Roy reclining on hay bale. “You best look at that near hock,” he would say, not even looking up from his TV Guide crossword. Roz would stop to feel the hock, and it would be hot.

“Why didn’t you tell me when you spotted it?” she’d say, irritated.

“Didn’t spot it. Heard it. Right now, in his step. You gotta listen to your hawses, Roz. You listen to they steps.”

Or: “You gonna ride him in a snaffle? Roz, he’s gonna pull your arms right out of they sockets.” Inevitably, she would spot Roy watching her struggle from his perch on the fence, chewing a Twizzler. He was always right.

A few years back, when Roy had expressed a desire for some peace and quiet, he’d built a bunk in the hayloft and went on the night shift. Roz rejoiced.

The smell of the sweet feed brought every head out of its stall, ears pricked forward. The sight of so many horses, most of them her own, would have filled the young Roz with a shining joy. Now she thought: so many mouths to feed. And for every mouth, four feet; Frankie, the roan, had just cast a shoe, why couldn’t he keep them on even a little while? Somehow she had to keep all those legs working, before the blacksmith was back again, and before the hay man sent another past due notice…

Roz pulled her dirty wool stocking hat down over her ears. She had to catch this mare. Marilee would be by for her lesson at nine o’clock, requiring Otis to be cleaned, tacked up, and ready to go in less than fifteen minutes. Framed by the open barn door, Otis stood with her lean chestnut rump to Roz, looking at the fence. Within the next ten steps Roz would know if the mare would take the feed bucket or a flying leap. Roz generally put her money on the feed bucket.

“Otis,” Roz murmured as she approached. The mare was off the track, and her barn name was cut down from her racing name, Miss Otis Regrets. She had been an impulse purchase from the year before, and Roz still felt buyer’s remorse. Roz had gone to an auction looking for something safe and suitable for kids. What she’d found was a discarded Thoroughbred, well-made, with a beautifully shaped head. Roz outbid the man from Quality Canine, and, nine hundred dollars later, Otis was hers.

“That’s one tetchy sumbitch mare,” was Roy’s appraisal, his expert eye magnified by thick glasses worn on an elastic strap around his head, so that they looked like goggles. “I know she’s pretty. But she’s damn tetchy. You gonna start all over from the beginning with that one. You gonna be starting from dot.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Roy. I don’t suppose you’re volunteering to sit on her.”

“No way, Roz. My lumbar regions.”

Otis spent the next six weeks weaving in her box and screaming in the field. Marilee saw her from the fence, said ooooh, and offered three thousand dollars for her, but Roz said: “I cannot risk my reputation on a sale like this.” So Marilee bid five, since she was not accustomed to not getting her heart’s desire. Roz said no. Marilee had only been riding for about a year. Otis required someone who’d been riding at least as long as your average world war.

Roz’s working pupil, Caroline, started exercising Otis. Caroline was small and wiry, with a seemingly ant-like capacity to carry many times her weight. Roz would often see her rolling the eighty pound barrels of manure that Roz preferred to leave for Manuel, whistling like a boy. After a few months with Caroline, Otis settled into her work, and Roz started to reconsider Marilee’s offer. She sold Otis to Marilee in the fall for seven thousand dollars, believing that all those hours Caroline spent calming her down had to be worth something. Roz had made more than seven times profit, which she regarded ruefully as an advance on her general liability premiums against the day Marilee broke her neck. Marilee changed the mare’s name to something else– a favorite mixed drink, or maybe a vacation destination–Roz could never remember what it was, even though she walked past the nameplate on the animal’s loose box door a dozen times a day.

Roz banged the pail and the mare turned to her, ears curious. She took a few tentative steps forward and smelled what Roz was offering. She nosed into the plastic pail. Roz let the horse’s muzzle get deeper in the pail, and then snatched the lead rope. Otis’s pink, muscular tongue was swabbing the sides of the pail to get the last grains of the feed. She did not even notice she was now held fast.

Roz was picking the last of Otis’s bedding out of her tail when she heard Marilee’s car door slam. Otis heard it, too, and whinnied. Roz exercised Otis, shoveled her manure, carried her hay, carried her water, brushed her, picked her feet clean, and wrapped her legs in protective bandages. Marilee, meanwhile, came to the stable for her one hour lesson no more than three times a week, and the animal still whinnied when she heard her car door. That whinny for Marilee made it all seem so worthwhile.

But Marilee did have that effect on animals, children, men, and sometimes other women. She had this way of tilting her head and locking eyes with someone, a small, admiring smile playing on her lips, whenever she was narrated or explained anything beyond three sentences. Roz first noticed this look when Marilee was new to the stable and asked why there was always steam rising off the manure pile. Roz’s manure pile was infamous among the other residents of Half Mile Road, who liked living in the country surrounded by farms only if there was no evidence of the less picturesque elements of animal life. She sold the manure to a mushroom farmer, who came with a dump truck to take it away for pennies a barrel. She’d even made a hand-lettered sign for it: 401(k).

“It gets hot inside the pile because microorganisms are breaking down the organic material,” said Roz, who had majored in chemistry before falling in love for the first time with a human her sophomore year, moving into his van, and dropping out of school for good. “Microorganisms consume oxygen while they feed on organic matter and that’s how it produces heat. That pile always looks like it’s ready to blow.” She smiled for a moment, savoring the thought.
Marilee did that thing with her head, gazing at Roz with her big blue eyes. “Really! That’s so interesting! How did you know that? You must know everything about horses.”

“I wouldn’t say everything. I hope I know enough to keep me from doing anything too stupid.” The mushroom farmer had not shown up since before Thanksgiving, and the manure pile was rapidly turning into a manure mountain. Roz had been calling the farmer, a man with a thin grey ponytail who had a cooperative over in Shelton called Boletus Will Feed Us. He wasn’t returning her calls. Twelve years running this barn, six as its owner, and she most certainly did not know it all. But Marilee’s blue-eyed gaze did have a way of making her feel shrewd and in control. Even keeping a manure mountain could seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Marilee walked into the barn, helmet and riding crop tucked under one slender, cashmere arm, as she was putting on her gloves. Her blond hair was pinned up neatly, showing a long and elegant neck.

“Hi Roz!” She patted the velvety part of Otis’s muzzle. “How’s my sweet pea, how’s my li’l honey? Ooooh, have you been a good girl? I have carrots for you, yeah…” The cooing would continue until Marilee was mounted up, which always prodded Roz to move a little faster in her preparations.

Roz straightened her back and rubbed her chapped hands. “She’s all set for you. Bring her in the indoor arena when you’re ready. I’ll be in the office for a bit, and I’ll be out when you’re warmed up.”

Roz sat down at the desk and looked for the Boletus guy’s number. She dialed, and a recording told her the line was disconnected with no forwarding information. She was flipping through the county yellow pages to find other possible takers for her manure bounty when she noticed the answering machine message light was on. She hit ‘play.’

“I’d like to leave a message for Rosalind Pardo. Rosalind, this is Vicky Blair. I’m calling on behalf of the homeowners of Half Mile Village. I am the President of the Homeowners Association. We have been trying…trying! to reach you to discuss the matter of your sanitary disposal problem. We want to remind you that there are ordinances about the removal of animal waste that apply to you, Rosalind, just as much as to the dog walkers in our community. We appreciate that you have a working farm, but it is becoming a cause for concern. A sanitation matter, which I am sure you can appreciate. The children of Half Mile Village have a bus stop just yards from your waste site, and, well, we think that this is becoming a community issue. We’d like you to meet with the Board of Half Mile Village tomorrow night to discuss what remedial measures…”

Roz hit ‘cancel’ and considered her options. She could pay to have someone haul it away. She thought about the size of the dump truck, how many loads and how much by the pound that the dump would charge, if she could find a dump willing to take animal manure. She could spread it over her own property. This would not likely suit Ms. Vicky Blair, but it was sanitary. She would need equipment to spread it. Could she afford the machinery? She’d have to buy it, since it would need to be spread constantly. Maybe not, if Manny and Caroline and Roy with pitch forks…no, that wouldn’t do. They’d spend the whole working day out there. A few days in a row and they’d probably rise up against her. Hire some cheap labor? There were always men in front of the Home Depot looking for day work; small men with broad backs and Aztec faces. They’d be expecting something relatively easy, like laying sheetrock. Boy, would they be in for a surprise. They might be affordable for a day or two, but she’d need someone to spread the manure almost every day. After enough days at it, they’d probably unionize. Roz thought about her first jobs working with horses. Only she was horse-crazy enough to shovel shit for free.

After her attempted break out earlier that morning, Otis was surprisingly calm and focused on her work when Roz got to the arena. Marilee was cantering her around the ring a relaxed circle. “Can we put up the jumps today?” she called out to Roz. This was a new pastime for Marilee, but she was a bold rider. Unfortunately, Marilee lacked any instinct of self-preservation, which made her a particular challenge for an instructor. Roz often woke from dreams of placing a call to Marilee’s handsome new husband, whose name she could never remember, Trip or Kip (but not Skip, somehow she was pretty sure of that) and report that Marilee had been taken away in an ambulance, but that we were all very hopeful since no one had tried to move her spine once she hit the ground…

Roz recalled her own husband long ago, husband number two, not the one with the van, but another one whom she chose because he rode horses and that was an interest she thought could bind them together. That husband got her into fox hunting. They spent autumn weekends in Westchester, riding in a herd of half-mad equines who threw themselves at stone walls and ditches, until Roz came upon something called an Irish bank, a brush fence with a drop on the far side. Her horse somersaulted when he hit the drop. Roz somersaulted too, and landed standing up, still holding onto the reins, before her legs gave way. Her husband jumped off his horse and came running to her. She would never forget looking into the face of someone who thought he had a paraplegic on his hands for the rest of his life…

Marilee pushed Otis into a rocking canter and cleared the vertical. “Do that one again,” shouted Roz from her seat on the mounting block. “Remember not to jump ahead of her. Then change rein and jump the coop.”
Now that Marilee had started confiding in Roz about her home life, Roz realized that her riding style was all of a piece with everything else. ‘Throwing one’s heart over a fence’ was what the old horsemen called it. Roz thought it was typical female idiocy. Take Kip or Trip. A freshly divorced Marilee met him in the South of France, not long after she’d started taking lessons from Roz. She’d been telling Roz all the dreamy details: he had gone to Harvard, worked in finance, was a ranked tennis player when he was in school, knew how to sail, spoke three languages. When they went to Giovanni’s, he would order the whole meal in Italian. He always knew the perfect wine to go with a meal, and would even send it back if it wasn’t quite right. The latter details alone already made him insufferable to Roz, and not only because she herself was Italian, albeit from New Jersey. She had waited tables in Italian restaurants in the early days to support her horses, and had encountered this type of diner.

“What was he doing in the South of France?” Roz asked. “Was he on vacation, too?” Oh no, said Marilee. He was working on a deal, something media-related, and he’d taken a few days off after Cannes. This was another irritant for Roz: People who ‘did deals.’ A few of them owned horses and passed through her place at one time or another, so she’d had the opportunity to observe them first-hand when not deal-making. Also irritating were people who went to Cannes and then felt like they needed and deserved a vacation. The fact that anyone actually conducting business in the South of France was probably either a drug dealer, professional gambler, human trafficker, or arms broker did not seem to trouble Marilee, nor that she did not know anything about the transaction that brought Kip/Trip there, except that it involved taking meetings at the beach and imbibing cocktails at film festivals.

“Can we put up the jumps some more?” asked Marilee.

“I’ll put them up six inches. That’s more than enough.” said Roz, who was already fiddling with the brackets, and resetting the long wooden poles between the standards. “Come around again, and don’t jump ahead. Wait for her.”

Marilee set her plump baby mouth into a determined line and pushed Otis forward. Otis bounded toward the vertical and took a huge leap. “Woo-hoo!” cried Marilee.

“Slow her down. She’s charging the fences,” said Roz.

“That’s why I bought her,” said Marilee. “She likes to jump!”

“She’s out of control. Collect her,” said Roz sternly.

A couple of months ago, right after the holidays, Marilee had shown up at the stable flashing a large diamond ring. “We got married on New Year’s Eve!” she announced. Manny and Roy had offered their congratulations, but Roz’s stuck in her throat. “I guess you know what you’re getting into,” she said. “You’ve been down that road before.” Marilee’s smile faded a bit, but she said: “Oh, Roz, I can’t wait for you to meet him! He wants to come here to meet my baby, so I can introduce you! Do you know we want to get a vacation house? Maybe in Switzerland. You could visit us!”

Roz smiled at the invitation. As if she could jump on a plane to Switzerland. As if she could even take a vacation. Every week was a long tunnel: getting up in the cold dark; unlocking the barn door with stiff blue fingers; breaking the ice on the tub of water outside; then hauling, raking, and shoveling; standing in the middle of a sawdust ring; taking calls and putting off bill collectors. At the end of the tunnel, on a Sunday night, a dry martini, and maybe a little Masterpiece Theater on TV. And then it all began again.

At the end of the lesson, Marilee bounded neatly off Otis. “Roz, I wanted to ask you something,” she said.

“Yup.” Roz pulled off her stocking hat and rubbed her brown and grey hair, matted by the hat now, but normally loosely frizzy, like the coat of a terrier. She could see Otis’s breath was coming in warm, rapid gusts. “If you want to put her in her box, be sure not to feed her just yet, and don’t forget her rug.”
“Roz, I know you’ve been married-” started Marilee.

“Too many times,” Roz replied. “If you looking for advice, probably not the best person.”

“Well, not advice, really. Wanted to get your… gut feel.”

“Gut feel?”

“When you were married, your money was shared, right? There’s no your money and his money when you’re married?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Personally, Roz always thought a woman should keep a little bit of glue of her own. It was an uncertain world. But she didn’t know where Marilee was going with her line of questioning.

“Well, it’s like this. A few months ago, Chip borrowed some money from me.” Chip! That was the name. “He was really stuck, and he was waiting for his payment on this biotech buyout that he put together, and I guess something happened and he wasn’t being paid. Anyway, he was deep in debt and he would’ve lost his place. After we got married, he sold his place, and, well, he made a nice profit on the house he would’ve lost, and he bought himself a boat. I can use the boat, but really, I wanted him to pay me back … well, that’s what I was asking. It’s like it’s his money now, isn’t it? I mean he can’t really pay me back, since he would be paying himself, too, but I…” Marilee’s voice trailed off.
“You know, like I said, I’m not the one to ask, but I think he ought to ask you before he buys boats and things.”

“Well, yes, I guess that’s it.” Marilee pulled off her gloves, and then her helmet. “I wish I knew what happened with that payment. Don’t they still owe him the money? The acquisition closed and everything.”

Roz sighed. “If I knew anything about getting or keeping money, I would not be getting up at five o’clock every morning to shovel manure with Manny and Roy.”

Roy met them at the barn door. “Merrilee,” he rasped. “Let me take that hawse from you. You look tired. I can give her a good rub down.” Roz had noticed that on mornings Marilee had a lesson, Roy did not go up to his hayloft at his usual bedtime. On other days, he was nowhere to be seen when the morning feed was going on, claiming he needed his rest.

“That’s kind of you!” She gave him a bright smile.

Roy slipped off the bridle and hooked Otis onto the cross-ties. Roz took the saddle. “I really don’t know what to tell you about… your husband. I think you have to make it clear how you want to live together.”

“Who’s talking husbands?” asked Roy. “I am the expert on men. You gals just go ahead and ask me. I can tell you how to keep a man happy.”

“No thanks, Roy. I don’t want to know how to keep a man happy,” said Roz.
Marilee was amused. “How? I need to know.”

Roy’s magnified eyes bugged behind his goggle-glasses. “You gotta take care of your husband. If you know what I mean. You want to go out with the gals on Saturday? You better take care of your husband on Friday. If you get what I’m saying. If you want that pretty dress from the store on Monday, you better take care of him on Sunday. You know what I’m saying?”

Marilee giggled.

“Ok, Roy. Thanks. We get your drift,” said Roz.

Roy winked at Marilee and got to work on Otis, rubbing her belly and flanks while looking at Marilee meaningfully.

“Thanks, Roy,” said Marilee brightly, before following Roz into the tack room. “He’s such a sweetie,” she sighed. After a pause, she said: “Roy has a very unusual accent. Where is he from?”

“No place more exotic than Delaware. That’s a race track accent. But don’t fall for that salty-old-horseman crap. He did not groom Man O’ War, and he did not break horses for the Tsar’s cavalry. I did the math, and it would make him one hundred and six years old.”

“You’re funny, Roz.”

“Oh, I’m a hoot. Just ask my ex-husbands how funny I am.”

Marilee scraped the last of the ring dirt off her boots with a wire brush. “I think Roy knows what he’s talking about.”

“Maybe about horses. I wouldn’t listen to him on any other subject.”

Roz stopped herself before she said anything more about Roy: How he was the finest horseman she’d ever known, and that this inconvertible fact made her heart ache daily. At Monmouth, Roz had never seen a human being sit on a horse like Roy. When she first got Half Mile Farm, she went back to Jersey, looking for Roy. She thought Roy would be the answer before she even knew the question. Roz had found him passed out behind the shed rows and said: Come work for me. No one knows what you are, but I do. At first, Roz wanted him to school green horses, but his back was too messed up to ride. She tried to get him to give lessons, but he didn’t have the patience. Then she asked him to train the working pupils, but he would just ask them to take him in their cars into New Haven to buy him weed. Roy did not have the answer to anything.

March drew to a close. The sun started coming out earlier, so that Roz was not out feeding the horses in the dark. The sun, the melting ice in the corners of the horse pens, being able to open the barn door without having to fumble for the latch with cold, stiff hands …these small things made Roz grateful.

Caroline broke the news to Roz that she was going back to school to get a nursing degree. She would be leaving soon to move back in with her family in Milford. Roz was happy that Caroline had decided not to keep the losing hand that was horses, but she would be hard to replace.

The manure pile continued to grow. Roz stopped answering the phone, and avoided the office when the message light blinked. She’d called every mushroom farmer in the Northeast, even offering to pay some people in New Jersey to haul it away, but she had no takers. The pile was almost two storeys tall now, too big to spread. It cast a shadow over the turnout paddocks and pens in the late afternoon. Roz walked through its shadow as she led horses in and out of the stable.

Marilee grew paler and more pensive as the winter dragged on. She started confiding in Roz more and more, as if Roz was her hairdresser. Trip/Kip had gone to a meeting in LA and did not answer his phone in his hotel room. They got into a fight, and he put his Land Rover into reverse over Marilee’s stand of aspen saplings. Then Marilee went to Jamaica for a week with him, and came back with a glowing tan and plans to buy a home there.

Roz heard about all the fights and reconciliations, but she could not follow their many intricate twists and turns, their conversational crannies and logical blind alleys —but you promised this, but I never said that, you know you have unaddressed needs. Roz wondered if the fights were necessary to justify taking the vacations, but Marilee was good at finding reasons to ‘invest in herself’ as she put it. Except now it was called “investing in the relationship.”

The days continued to grow a little longer and milder. One morning, Frankie didn’t pee in his usual spot in his stall, so Roz called Dr. Mitchell, who stared at Frankie and gave him a diuretic. Frankie refused his water bucket and still did not pee, growing listless and bloated as Dr. Mitchell scratched his head and counseled a trip to a specialist in Brewster.

Caroline, Manny, and Roy stood in an anxious semi circle with Roz around Frankie’s box. Finally, Roy said: “That hawse needs to go stand in a river.”
“What on earth would standing in a river do? He’s obviously got UTI or a–”

Roy threw a halter on Frankie and took him to the brook behind the horse pens, which was swollen by the run-off from the remains of the melting snow from the mountain. They stood together in the water, Frankie nosing the current for what seemed like hours, Roy silent and shivering in rubber wading boots, while Roz paced on the gravel bank. Frankie would occasionally plunge his face in the water. Finally Frankie let out a grunt, and urinated in a copious stream into the brook. Roz danced a jig on the gravel bank, and threw her arms around the frozen Roy as he led Frankie out of the water. How could she have doubted him?

As spring came, Roz reviewed all the projects she’d contemplated over the winter and thought of the new ring she wanted to dig in the side pasture. The small wheel loader she would need to rent might also do the work of spreading the manure. She took Roy with her to look at equipment. Roy claimed to know nothing of machinery, but she always brought a man along on these excursions so she would not be taken too much advantage of. The Cat dealer’s name was Mike Giordano, and the weekly rental was seventeen hundred dollars. As Roy played his part by glowering behind his goggle lenses, Roz jollied Giordano. She called him a paesan when he took down her name to fill out the rental forms for the wheel loader. When she asked, he said he had no children. Roz always tried to find out if her vendors had little girls.

Roz asked Manny to spread the manure around the property with the wheel loader. After a couple of hours spent trying to maneuver through the trees in Roz’s few acres of woodland, Manny jumped off the Cat and declared defeat.
“Roz, there’s no way to dump that shit in those woods. I didn’t clear the horse trails last spring. Not since Half Mile Village put up that chain link fence. We gotta find someone to take it away.”

Roz returned to her yellow pages. When the kids signed up for the summer session, she’d be flush, but Vicky the Villager would probably have her closed down by then. The last answering machine message was considerably less cordial than the first.

Miz Pardo. We have asked numerous times for a face-to-face meeting with you, but we have not had any response. Our attorney’s calls have gone unreturned. You leave us no choice. If the manure is not gone by the sixteenth, we will have to take action with the Board of Health and the Fire Department. The town board has been notified–”

Roz switched off the machine. After renting the Cat, there was a total of fifteen hundred dollars remaining in her bank account, and her best estimate for removing the manure came from the twitchy owner of a Chevrolet Kodiak she’d found through the Milford Pennysaver, who wanted three thousand in cash.

She could sell one of her animals, if she could find a buyer. Caroline was going, and she could let Manny go. Not Roy. As a last resort, she could always call husband number one, who no longer lived in a van, and was doing rather well as a contractor building houses much like those in Half Mile Village. She had not called him since the last time she’d run out of money, when Peanut needed an MRI at the horse clinic in Brewster. She closed the yellow pages. To hell with these commuters, she thought. Go back to New York if you don’t like it. You’re in the country now, and at least out here the horseshit is real.

The next morning Roz went to unlatch the barn door and saw that it was unlocked. “Roy?” she called out. No answer. The air was as cold inside as it was outdoors. “Roy?”

She noticed light streaming through the back end of the stable, where she kept the ponies in straight stalls. The back door was wide open. Yesterday’s hay bales were still in the center of the aisle, none of the flakes in the bale distributed. “Roy?”

Some of the horses, including Roz’s own retired jumper, Balthazar, were wandering outside in the paddock. Balthazar was not wearing his rug, and she knew it had been sleeting during the night.

She put Balthazar in his box and turned on the remaining lights, looking for Roy in the tack room, the feed shed, finally climbing up the ladder to the hayloft. “Roy, are you there?” She had not been upstairs in a while, and usually avoided the corner where Roy had his bunk. His bed was a pile of old quilts and unzipped sleeping bags over flannel sheets. Roy’s few possessions- a clock radio, the new pair of Bean boots that Roz had got him for Christmas, some snapshots of friends and family thumb-tacked into the soft wood above his bed, a canvas knapsack with a dog-eared paperback of Gibran’s The Prophet and the most recent issue of Racing Form–were all in their expected places. There was no sign of Roy.

He had been paid yesterday, but he’d not disappeared like this since he first came to work for Roz years ago, when she’d explained what was not acceptable. Where had he gone without a car? She’d left the stable early yesterday, at around four or five in the afternoon. Caroline had still been there. She might know more.

Roz climbed back down the ladder and set about getting the horses their breakfast. When Caroline arrived, she silently got to work with the feed, saying nothing until Roz asked her whether she’d seen Roy yesterday.

“Oh, Roz, I heard him tell Manny that he was going for a walk. I swear I didn’t give him any money–”

“You didn’t need to. He had his pay.”

Caroline looked at Roz, her small chin trembling. “I’m real sorry, Roz. I should’ve stayed until he got back.”

“It’s not your fault, honey.”

Roz heard the crunch of gravel and the slam of Marilee’s car door. “Oh, shit!”
“It’s okay, Roz. I’ll get Otis ready.” Caroline put one hand lightly on her shoulder—knowing that it was as much human touch as Roz would probably permit—before she headed off to the tack room.

Marilee was not smiling when she led Otis in the arena. Suddenly she blurted: “Oh, Roz, I can’t believe this… can I tell you what happened?” Before Roz could reply, Marilee declared: “I can’t believe what a fool I’ve been! Last week, while Chip was travelling, I had dinner with some friends. I’m telling them all about Chip, and I mention Harvard, and they say, ‘you mean undergrad? What year? He played tennis? We knew everyone on the tennis team, we would have known him…’ I freaked out. I asked Chip, and he said that I must be confused, that he’d gone there for business school. I started wondering what else wasn’t true. Well, you’ll never believe what I did this morning. I hacked into his Blackberry, and there were emails from women–”

Roz held the stirrup for Marilee to mount up. “I don’t want to be unfeeling, Marilee, but I don’t know if I should be hearing this. Have you thought of maybe finding a couples counselor, or a psychotherapist? I’m here to train you and your horse. I can’t–”

A small sob escaped Marilee. “I’m sorry Roz. I shouldn’t be laying this on you.”

“That’s okay. Hey, do you want to take Otis outside? It looks like a nice day. Warm.” Marilee brought Otis to a halt in front of the arena door. “Easy,” said Roz, “She’s not been out yet.” Marilee choked up on the reins and nudged Otis into the spring sunshine. Roz hoisted herself up on the fence. “Put her on a tight circle. She’s fresh.” The mare tossed her head and skittered out from under her rider. “Steady her,” said Roz. “Ride her every step.”

Roz was walking in the ring, putting one dusty boot in front on the other, counting strides between two obstacles when she saw a pickup truck roll into her driveway. Roy climbed out of the passenger seat, rapped the hood of the car in thanks, and stumped toward the barn, along the fence of the ring. The pickup truck drove off.

Roz fell in stride with him along the inside of the ring fence. “Delroy Wilson, where the fuck have you been? What do you think you’re doing, walking out of here–”

“Aw, don’t be using that kind of talk, Roz. You know I don’t care for cussing. ”
“I said, where the FUCK have you been?” The grinding sound of Manny starting up the Cat wheel loader in the side pasture made the rest of Roz’s tirade inaudible. “Manny, WILL YOU SHUT THAT THING OFF!”

“C’mon Roz,” he growled. “You always at me–”

Suddenly, there was a shriek from the other end of the ring. Otis had seen the Cat, and was tearing around, bucking and rearing. Marilee was pitched forward, clutching her mane.

“Sit up, Marilee!” cried Roz. “Put your hands down!”

Another roar from the wheel loader sent Otis careening down the center of the ring toward the fence. “Sit up, Marilee! Whoa! WHOA.”

The mare was heading straight for the fence. She was too crazed to jump it, and couldn’t anyway, with all that human weight flopping on her withers. Would she stop, though? Otis galloped as fast as she could, and suddenly stopped dead, sending Marilee spiraling over her head, landing on top of a fence post. She remained suspended there for an instant, hanging over the fence like a tangled marionette, and then slipped to the ground. Otis galloped to the other end of the ring, still screaming.

Roz ran to Marilee. “Don’t move!” she yelled, as Marilee tried to turn in the dirt.

Roz looked around and saw Manny climbing down from the Cat. “Call EMS!”
Marilee lifted her head. Roz saw spring mud smeared across Marilee’s cheekbone into her fair hair. The sight created a strange and pleasant lightness in Roz’s chest. She suppressed the sensation and knelt by Marilee.
“Don’t try to move.”

“Can’t breathe,” Marilee whispered. She brushed her mouth with one gloved hand. Roz thought: She must have tasted grit.

“Don’t talk. Take small sips of air.”

“What about–?” she whispered.

“Never mind that idiot animal.” The mare was standing quietly at the other end of the ring. Roy had caught her, and was stroking her nose and talking to her. “Roy’s got her.”

Satisfied, Marilee closed her eyes. She tried to inhale, and winced. Caroline came out with the first aid kit and busied herself taking Marilee’s pulse and temperature.

“You’ll be fine,” said Roz to Marilee. “I think you’ve cracked a rib.”

“Manny called for an ambulance. I should check for a possible concussion,” said Caroline. “Can you count backwards from one hundred by threes for me?”
“Some nurse,” said Roz.

“I don’t know how to set bones,” said Caroline.

Roz propped Marilee’s head in the crook of her arm, and the three women sat in silence for a while. A spring breeze, fresh and warm, blew through the bare branches of Roz’s trees.

“You know,” said Roz at last, “I’ve often thought that horses were my Zen masters and that the only patience I ever learned came from horses. But no animal tries your patience the way a human does. Horses don’t obscure it all by talking. They don’t say things like: ‘You got issues’ or ‘Please, baby, give me one more chance.’”

Marilee smiled.

After a silence, Roz looked toward the road and spotted a slim, dark-haired woman in a corduroy coat, the kind she seen in the Greenwich tack shop, along with the quilted barn jackets and custom English field boots unaffordable to anyone actually in the horse business. The woman strode up to Roz’s mailbox, which sat right on the road.

“Hello?” Roz called out. “Can I help you?”
The woman looked at her a moment, deposited a letter in the mailbox, turned on her heel, and retreated inside her SUV.

“That’s my death warrant,” said Roz.

When the ambulance came, the paramedics guessed that Marilee had broken her collar bone and an arm, but that they would need X-rays to be sure. Caroline offered to go with Marilee to the hospital, and they left Roz standing by herself at the front gate, watching the ambulance depart.

Her mind ran over the list of what needed to get done next. Fire Roy. The thought made all the blood and air in her head constrict. For Roy, firing was also eviction. Roz could see the canvas knapsack slung across that small back, curved with age like the shell of a turtle, as Roy departed down the driveway for the last time. She went to the mailbox to retrieve the letter. Eviction for her as well, unless she found some way to remove that manure Everest by the sixteenth. Next Tuesday.

She couldn’t remember what was on the lesson schedule for the afternoon, and called to Caroline, forgetting she’d gone in the ambulance. If Roz let Roy go, she’d be losing two able pair of hands at once. That wasn’t possible. She’d have to wait to fire him. As she approached the stable she could see Roy working on Otis on the cross-ties.

Roy looked up at her in the doorway. “Roz, before you go yelling at me, I wanted to tell you something. Last night I met a certain individual of interest to you. Bought me some drinks over at BeBe’s Lounge when I told him I worked out Seattle Slew before he won the Stuyvesant back in–”

“You never worked out Seattle Slew! You never even worked at Aqueduct!” Roz had already heard enough.

“Told me he won five hundred dollars on the Slew back in the day. Bought me drinks all night.”

“Great. That’s convenient you didn’t need to pay to get yourself wasted. Very cost-effective, bullshitting about Aqueduct.”

“Naw, Roz. Hear me out. He works in landscaping. Got his own business. Even got a dump truck. And he’s got a little girl, ten years old. Crazy about hawses. I never need to draw you any pictures, Roz. You call him and tell him I told you to call him.”

“What’s his name?”

“Giordano…take note, Roz, what you all call a sumbitch pie-zan.”

Roz’s heart sank. “No, Roy, Giordano was the Cat dealer. He rented us the wheel loader. Remember?”

Roy paused in his grooming. “Uhn…huh. Guess I got his name wrong.”

“What’s his name, Roy?”

Roy’s magnified eyes were wet and absent as he struggled for an answer. “It’ll come to me Roz. But when I have it, you can call him.”

Roz watched him at his grooming, and wondered, as she frequently did at times like these, about the sense of humor of that cosmic force or Supreme Being. How it could be so refined that it did not merely send Roy to her all those years ago, but instead compelled her to go looking for him. That’s what separates the amateur prankster from divine mischief, she thought.

Roy worked the curry comb over Otis in small, deft circles, an expert horseman’s touch. He was making the long, low sound he always made around the horses, something between a hum and constant throat-clearing that sounded like waves washing sand; deep, unvarying, and ever-soothing.


    This is an area on your website where you can add text. This will serve as an informative location on your website, where you can talk about your site.

    Subscribe to our feed