On a day in late April, though cloud-covered and a wee bit of chill in the air, she and I made our escape. There would be brandy to cut the chill, and mint liqueur. We drove out of town with carry-along cups of coffee warming our insides. We took a turn north, past turkey farms and fish farms and peach vendors, until we came to the mountains near the state line. We were now surrounded by Kentucky-blue pastures, red brick and frame structures, stables and weather-vanes. We curved through this country en route to the race tracks, a pattern of land that seemed deeper and lovelier to me by the partial hiddenness of the sun and the expectancy of rain.
I couldn’t say that Mary’s two daughters were in good hands for the day, but they were in the hands of their father who, I had to concede, was an adult who hadn’t had his driver’s license revoked – yet. I said nothing. At least her children were out of my mind and would not violate our space for an entire day. This was our escape: removed for one spring day from crisis and chaos. Free.
Who are all these elegant people? It was fantasy enough for me to look at the crowd in promenade around the track and grounds, trying to imagine the lives of the people who attended such events as this month by month, year after year. If dressed to the nines it was elegant. If they were shabby it was a designer shabbiness and was elegant. I studied the women, their regular, ultra-montane features, severe hair, and tennis figures. I played a guessing game: boarding school, country day school, church school? Faces were cheerful, festive, relaxed, unperturbed, and amiable. No one pouted or wore a thundercloud. No one was intense or asked existential questions. Concerns for the fate of humanity or of the planet Earth were left at the gate.
We met up with several friends. Frank and Teresa invited us here and greeted us warmly. Everyone was pleasant and accommodating, and asked no searching questions. No one sidled up, their eyes wrinkled with concern: “How are things on the homefront? Is there any improvement with the children? Do you see any light?” By chance or unspoken consensus, no one asked. We were on escape. They did offer us brandy. We accepted, gratefully.
Mary’s friend Suzanne won the Crazy Hat competition. For months Mary had been telling me about her brilliantly creative friend who, incredibly, was still single at thirty years of age.
“Oh there you are, dear girl!” squealed Suzanne. “And this is the new husband! Oh my! You done good, my dear. Very good!” She hooked us both by the arm and began walking us over the grounds.
“You need to meet my friends Maureen and Roger. Their stables are about five miles up the road. I used to come up during the summer and ride. Well I still do I guess. Ha ha! One of their mares is running the steeplechase. Oh hey hey hey! It’s Stephen Odell. Aren’t you jockeying today?” We wove through RVs and trailers while Suzanne waved and chattered with everyone.
“She’s rather, um, spectacular,” I admitted to my wife, as I admired the moderate plunge of Suzanne’s neckline and how easily she moved around in her hoop skirt and petticoats.
“Just keep your mind on your business!” Mary winked. “Oh I knew it was a calculated risk. Go ahead and look.”
There was a fanfare followed by the announcement that the Craziest Hat contest was about to begin. There was no sense in trying to mimic the customs of a certain other famous equestrian event, so the organizers decided instead to lampoon it, with crazy hats and mint liqueurs. Suzanne rushed over to the edge of the track and pulled out an enormous bonnet – five feet in diameter – and was quickly assisted by two beaux, one on either side, to keep the hat balanced on her head and from being gone with the wind (which was rather gusty that day) and to help her step into the ring and parade in a wide circle with the other contestants. Once she stepped under the judges’ gaze the result was inevitable. Out of politeness they observed all the contestants as they walked by, buzzed among themselves for a few seconds, then declared Suzanne the winner.
“It was something I just threw together last night,” she said, and plainly meant to be taken literally. “At eleven o’clock last night I’m thinking Wow, I need to come up with a hat. So I envisioned this five foot wide Scarlett O’Hara hat. It was three in the morning after hours of cutting and stitching and hot-gluing everything together until Voila! my twenty pound masterpiece came to life!”
If Suzanne was enflamed by the $50 first prize, to me it seemed obvious that she was already well practiced in hard partying with her friends. The drinks flowed, and the jokes and the laughter and the food. Even Frank and Teresa, a pretty hilarious pair in their own right, were amazed.
Mary had told me something of Suzanne’s background: how during a religious crisis in college she had left behind her roots in the Episcopal Church, and had later gotten involved in a fundamentalist group whose main interests were speaking in tongues and the end of the world. But her fundamentalists, by god, weren’t going to get in the way of her good times. She was going to, by god, party until they had to stretch her out, by god, on top of that five foot hat and carry her off. “It’s a holiday,” she said, “and on holidays I’m Episcopalian. Hell, even pagan! Besides, I just have to get off the treadmill sometimes and let myself go.”
“Since when is your life a treadmill, I’d like to know?” I was immediately sorry I had asked, and was grateful when this potentially searching question was lightly tossed aside. Today was fantasy day, and I didn’t want to talk about treadmills, real or imagined, or crisis, or chaos, or co-alcoholic households, or oppositional defiant children, or any other treadmill specifics or generalities. Let’s enjoy the holiday. Let’s watch the beautiful severe women from the boarding schools, and the funny hats, and the scarlet jackets and jodhpurs. Let’s watch the skittish mare as she stamps, straining at bit and bridle, shying from the starting gate. Feel the grace and power of the other animals as they canter and gallop in circles around us, dazzling in bold colors and silks, black divots of turf flying in a wake behind. Let’s watch Suzanne the brilliant creature in the foreground, born to celebration, as she called to memory how brilliantly she had learned to enjoy life.
The brandy was beginning to buzz inside my head. “Hey, why don’t we head over to the grassy bank next to the track?” I said. “Not as many people. We can see the race up close.” Mary, Frank, and Teresa agreed that this would be a good idea. We began making our way in that direction.
Though I didn’t wear a five foot crazy hat, Mary and others had told me that I cut a pretty fine figure myself in my blue blazer, white trousers, and tan pith helmet. I felt flashbulbs pop.
Was that for me? Really I appreciate that. I try to dress with a little flair for the occasion. I’m a bit of a costume freak myself, you know. But seriously, this isn’t the Derby or Ascot, is it?
“I’d like you to meet Ben and Carolyn. She’s a co-volunteer of mine. And Ben is – a broker, am I right?”
“I’d like to introduce Margaret and Harvey. You saw them at that wedding at All Saints’?”
“It is very nice here, I’ll admit. But I loved the old track. My mother won there in ’52 at the Third Annual.”
Yes, and I’m a state employee and I make $22,000 a year. But don’t be too shocked. I come from an old Georgia bloodline and, of course, I have a share in the estate…
I had to admit that even the bounds of my fantasy were being stretched. Was everyone here pretending? Something unreal was surrounding me. But I had had several brandies and, well, it was only for one day. I still wanted a wider space. I wanted to climb the grassy ridge and look down at the crowd below. I wanted to get as close as possible to the horses, their speed and muscle and aerobic power.
The end came suddenly. It happened only a few feet from where we stood leaning through the fence as if orchestrated for us alone. It took only as long as a long sigh. One thousand pounds, sleek and steaming, vibrant with energy and velocity, in full stride, tumbling at our feet in a heap having nearly, almost, not quite with surpassing grace arched over the four foot wall in front of us. I heard hardly a sound over the roar in my ears like a dream: not his hoof caught on the fence, nor the thud of a thousand pounds landing on the turf, nor the sharp snapping sound a horse’s neck is supposed to make when it breaks. I wasn’t sure what was proper to think under such circumstances: “How embarrassing”? That wouldn’t do. “Poor fellow! That’s a nasty spill”?
He looked at our eyes. To me he looked to be in distress and discomfort, but not terribly. He might have been waiting for someone to come along and, upsy-daisy, help him to his feet. His mouth made a soundless munching movement and his legs jerked slightly. Really now, you guys, how long do you have to keep me waiting like this? Do I have to lie here and look foolish all afternoon? The rider, in silks and leather, jumping to his feet, furiously unbuckling straps, screaming “Vet! Vet!” A young woman in riding garb sprinting toward the horse, her face stricken with tears, a wail of appeal rising to her throat. Other people rushing around, including an official looking gent with a ribbon on his lapel. Finally the truck arrived. Help at last, and high time too! Poor animal. The truck bed began to lower at an angle. It wasn’t until two men began covering the horse’s body with a blue tarpaulin that I looked again at his eyes: they could not see me. Damn! I thought. When did this happen? Could I have been standing here watching all this activity for the past five minutes and refused to see death, refused the truth, not even noticing that his chest did not rise? That his eyes were congealed? Heavy blue vinyl covered chest and eyes and, moments later, the body was lifted onto the truck bed and driven away.
The rain began.
In general I knew what I was angry about. I was trained as a professional counselor to deduce the sources of anger and frustration, their labyrinthine emotional routes, and how they might be creatively discharged. Right now I only wanted to indulge my angry fantasy, healthily or not. I wanted to scream with rage at an unfortunate animal – a poor, stricken beast who, by his death, had served up death before me and had shocked me out of my holiday.
“Honey, I’m feeling some discomfort,” said Mary. We were at dinner with Teresa and Frank and she had finished eating the marinated beef and everything else with relish.
“Where does it hurt?” I said.
She pointed to the center of her chest – the sternum. “It’s not that bad. It just started. Maybe something got stuck in my esophagus…”
“Well, if we’re all finished, maybe we could move away from the table,” said Teresa. “Give Mary a little room to relax.”
My wife didn’t appear pale or clammy. Maybe it was a bit of indigestion, not so uncommon for her. She was a high strung sort.
We moved into the lounge and talked and laughed about anything and nothing. Teresa and I were the smokers, so the couples switched. She and I sat on one end of the sofa, talking across the coffee table to Mary and Frank.
“Oh I love the piano music!” Mary moved toward the piano where a middle-aged man in dinner dress played. I joined her.
“Those are some wonderful renditions of Cole Porter and Jerome Kern,” I said.
“Well thank you!” said the pianist. “Very much. Anything you’d like to hear?”
“Finish what you’re playing,” I said. “Then ‘Only Make Believe’ would be nice.”
“That’s a favorite,” said Mary. The pianist was smooth, but not silky smooth.
“He plays with a tinkle and a razz matazz, just a touch, the way twenties music should be played.”
“The rain has almost stopped,” said Frank. “Barely a mist.”
“This is a beautiful neighborhood,” said Teresa. “Mary, do you feel like walking?”
“Oh sure! It’ll do me good.”
Food tasted better on a holiday. And flowers smelled sweeter. We wandered by the banks of azaleas and rhododendrons. They had been made fresh and vivid by the rain.
“I can’t stop thinking about that horse.” Mary sighed. “Every time I close my eyes I see him, that beautiful bay gelding, falling into a heap at our feet.”
“It was horrible,” said Teresa. “I know I’ll have nightmares.”
“I heard the sound of his neck when it broke, like the snapping of a tree branch.”
“So strange, but I didn’t hear anything,” I said. “I was in a dream.”
The soft rain continued. It was not quite dusk when we bid our farewells to Frank and Teresa in the restaurant parking lot.
We stopped by a country store on the road home and bought Mary a cola. The chest pains weren’t going away. Now she complained of shortness of breath and numbness in her right arm as well. I knew we would pass by a branch of the county hospital on the way so I decided to take her there.
Mary presented herself to the Saturday night triage staff with grace and courage. I held her hand and hovered around her. I looked into her eyes, and she smiled. It all took an hour. We discussed the EKG, which was normal, with the doctor. We made arrangements for insurance and billing and a prescription for Ativan and a follow-up appointment. We prepared to leave and as we said goodbye to sickness and death, in a wailing rage in my mind, I was composing a letter.
On Saturday night I took your mother to the emergency room. You put her there. She had been complaining of chest pains, shortness of breath, and numbness. These are common symptoms of a heart attack. The doctor laid your mother on a table, took off her blouse, and stuck electrodes all over her torso, and you put her there. She did not have a heart attack on Saturday night. The doctor said, which I knew, that the chest pains and other symptoms could also be caused by accumulated tension and stress. This is another way of saying they were caused by you.
I want you to understand that continual tension and stress can cause heart attacks. I want you to be aware that, in the future, whenever you curse your mother, or are deliberately malicious to her or when you say and do things with the intent to hurt and wound her, you are killing her. It may be a slow process, but you will cause her to die if you do these things. I want you to be aware that each of you has done such things hundreds of times in the past…
Of course it was no good. The letter would never be written and these things would never be said. Mary was a very healthy woman physically. But her body wanted to complain to her. Her body wanted to complain loudly and a day’s holiday, a little time for resting and letting down, was all the opportunity it needed.
We pulled into the driveway. All was dark and still. Mary gave into her relief and was beginning to revive, but she went straight to bed as she knew she must.
People think funny thoughts when they are trying to sleep. They play games with themselves, usually with little success, trying to trick themselves into slumber. I couldn’t stop composing my letter of rage, and did so for nearly an hour. I knew it would rob me of sleep and never be written. I wanted to lay down with my anger, to sink into it. I wanted to do every non-therapeutic thing I could. I wanted to blame and judge and snarl and hate and damn souls to hell, but before long I became just as exhausted as my wife.
I thought of the bay gelding. What was his name? Foolish Pride? Patient Rejoinder? Irrational Anxiety? I felt a surge of power and the force of life. I felt a sharp and crippling soul deep pain in my neck, and rigors in my arms and legs. I film was covering my eyes. I thought, these might be the kind of things a great beast feels, poor wretch, when he is falling, falling, and falling.
Davis Horner studied elves at Furman University, and has been a staff features writer for various tabloids and newspapers. He became a writer as a young man, quit in disgust to become a musician, and now is writing again. He has had stories placed recently at Scrutiny, Foliate Oak, Gravel, and Furious Gazelle. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two cats. His wife and one of the cats are internationally famous. He is not. His Twitter is @scphrogg. His Facebook is Davis Horner – Writer.