If Wishes Were Horses, page 1
IF WISHES WERE HORSES
Curtiss Ann Matlock
About the Author
* * *
Never, ever give up. A little money helps, but what really gets you through is to never, under any circumstances, face the facts.
* * *
Part I -- The Wish Chasers
Etta spent the three days following her husband’s death in the guest-room bed with the covers pulled over her head, blocking out light and sound and trying desperately to block out thought. It was not so much her husband dying in another woman’s bed that had sent her into shock, but his dying at all. Roy had been only thirty-five years old, and while he had been in many a woman’s bed, he had never died on her before.
A weak heart, the doctor said, one of those strange flukes, like the Pettijohn boy who had dropped dead of a blood clot in the brain as he was throwing the winning hoop shot during the season playoffs. Etta found this image further disturbing.
She kept lapsing into self-blame, thinking that she should have seen signs of Roy’s weakening heart. Lately there had been several afternoons when he looked pale, went to bed and slept for a day, but he always awakened and reached for her, saying, “Come here and make me feel like a man.” A man who made love as Roy Rivers did surely could not have too bad a heart. (Latrice said it was this prowess that kept him alive until it killed him.)
Even now, after all, Etta could not stop herself from lowering the patchwork quilt and listening, expecting to hear the front door open and Roy’s voice call out like he always did, no matter how many days he’d been away or whom he’d been with, “Darlin’, I’m home!” And she’d go, and there he’d be, hat in his hand, fair hair falling over his forehead, his lips grinning that sheepish grin, while his green eyes pleaded with such a fearful, desperate need that never failed to melt her angry heart.
Roy’s voice did not call out, although a number of other voices did, voices coming to get their due. The saying was, “You can’t take it with you,” but it began to appear that Roy had done just that. At least he was gone, and everything appeared to be going right with him.
A man from the Oklahoma City auto dealer came and repossessed the new gleaming white Cadillac, for which Roy still owed the first payment. A woman from the electric company called, saying their electricity was in danger of being shut off and hadn’t they had the notice. Lot Jones, the John Deere tractor dealer, came and took the brand new humongous Deere Roy had bought last fall, and then Harry Flagg showed up to take away the remaining horses.
Harry arrived early on the morning of the funeral. Etta had at last gotten out of bed, pretty much poked and prodded out by Latrice, and was in the bathroom, dreaming of coffee and returning to bed.
Naked, holding a towel to her breast, she hurriedly wiped a circle on the steamy window and peered out to see Harry’s big black two-ton truck pulling a wooden stock trailer, easing over the potholes. Harry’s arm encased in an old army coat sleeve hung out the window, as was his habit.
Etta stared for a long moment at Harry’s truck. No . . . no . . . no!
Tossing aside the towel, she snatched up her flowered satin robe. Opening the door before she even began slipping into the robe, she ran from the moist warmth of the bathroom into the crisp coolness of the hallway. Because she was in too much of a hurry to tie the robe, it went flying out behind her as she raced, bare feet pounding down the cold oak stairs and through the rooms to the back door. She did not race smoothly, as she was nearly six months pregnant and somewhat unbalanced by her growing belly.
In the kitchen Latrice had the radio volume turned up, listening to “The Morning Hour of Prayer, brought to you by Bright and White Grocery and Wayman’s House of Furniture.”
When Etta burst through the swinging door, Latrice whirled from the counter, eyes wide and mouth popping open. Etta took no time to speak. She tugged on her old brown cowboy boots setting at the back door, hopping and stuffing and opening the door at the same time, while Latrice cried, “Cover yourself!”
Etta tied the robe but it slipped, and she clutched the folds of it around her body while trying to hold her belly, too, as she went racing out across the yard beneath the tall, winter-bare elms. The first fresh air she’d had in three days seared her lungs. Without socks, her feet slid around inside the stiff boots.
“What are you doin’, Harry?” she cried breathlessly.
“I’m afraid I’ve come for my stock, Etta. Like I told Latrice yesterday. I figured she told you.” He cast her a quick, somewhat shocked glance and then averted his gaze and headed on toward the barn. He was a big man with a long stride. Etta went beside him like a panting little puppy.
“I’ll get the money, Harry.”
She shook from emotion and from it being only thirty-five degrees. The satin was like ice on her skin. She gripped the folds tightly with her fists and pressed her elbows against her sides and gazed up at the giant man. Harry’s head, with his closely shaved flat-top, resembled an egg with two pinpoints of eyes almost lost in the flesh. His head swiveled, and he gave her another quick perusal, and she saw his pity and discomfort. She thought that she had to play on that.
“I’ll pay you, I promise I will. I just need a little time to get things straight . . . see exactly what I have. I really haven’t been up to that, Harry.”
After a moment, frowning, he said, “I know you’d pay me if you could, Etta, but where are you gonna get that kind of money?”
Her heart thumped in her chest. “I don’t know right now, but I’m sure I can get it. I’m going to go over the assets with Leon tomorrow or the next day.” She reached up to brush her hair from her eyes. Seeing Harry’s eyes widen and realizing her robe was hanging open dangerously, she clutched it together again. “Right now I’m a little busy, you know. The funeral is in a couple of hours.”
Harry did have the decency to look a bit embarrassed about coming before the funeral. But he still said, “I need my money, Etta. I got business problems of my own, and Roy should have paid me six months ago. As it is, I heard he went and sold a top mare out of here three weeks ago. That’s one hell of a mess. Now, I got the papers showing the lien on this stock, and I got a buyer lined up waitin’ for ‘em. There’s nothin’ else I can do, Etta.”
Turning from her, he motioned to his two Mexican hands, who were hanging back by the big truck and staring at Etta, Mrs. Roy J. Rivers, clearly naked and pregnant beneath the thin robe. At Harry’s command, they turned their attention to the stables.
Etta clumped beside Harry, who was once more picking up his pace as he entered the barn. “Roy isn’t even in the ground yet, Harry. I tell you I’ll get the money. If nothin’ else, I have jewelry I can sell.”
“Roy leave you with that much jewelry?” he asked absently, his attention on checking the horse stalls, peering over the thick wooden walls.
“I’ve got these.” Etta held up her wedding rings, hoping to shame him, although it occurred to her the rings wouldn’t come up to being worth what was owed Harry, who barely spared a glance at them.
She said, “I’ll raise the money, Harry. Just give me some time.” She thought she might cry . . . thought maybe it would help. But tears would not come. She had not yet been able to cry over Roy, either.
Harry shook his head. “You’d better hang on to those rings, Etta. You might be wantin’ to think about what you’re gonna be livin’ on.”
“I’ll make out, Harry. I just don’t want to lose these horses. I can’t . . ."
Harry’s small eyes came down and rested on her for a moment. The deep pity of his expression fell all over Etta and about burned her clean away. She
“Let it go, Etta. You don’t need these horses anyway. They ain’t worth the ten thousand, but I’ll let them settle the debt and we’ll be even.”
“I didn’t borrow the money from you, Harry.”
He slanted her a glance but didn’t stop.
Etta fell to begging in earnest. “Harry, that mare and filly are my own. I pulled that filly and spent three nights with her.”
The bay filly—Missy Bee—nickered at Etta as she was led past. Etta stretched out her hand and felt her heart going out her fingertips.
“Roy’s name is on the papers as sole owner, Etta. I’m sorry."
Etta slowly followed the men out of the barn. She stood clutching her robe and pressing her elbows into her sides, watching as the men continued to empty the stalls and load the trailer. One gelding, three mares, and a yearling filly, the last of the horses from a stable that echoed of fine yesterdays, a few of them anyway.
As they were loaded into the trailer, the horses whinnied and knocked around on the rough plank flooring. All the commotion brought the three-year-old in the corral behind Etta rushing up to the fence and calling excitedly to his companions.
“I guess I’ll leave that red gelding,” Harry said, coming over to her after he’d slammed the tailgate closed. “He’d just be more trouble than he’s worth to haul.”
He took a deep breath, looked out at the horse, then back at Etta. “I’m real sorry, Etta . . . but I need the money, too.”
Etta thought maybe she should say something like, “It’s okay, Harry.” He did have a family to think about, and he seemed to expect her to say something. She tried, she really did, but there suddenly seemed no words inside her. Nothing but a profound emptiness. All she managed to do was look at him very sorrowfully and then at Missy Bee nosing a crack in the wooden tailgate.
Harry walked away and got in the truck, slammed the door. Etta watched that rear gate shake and listened to the horses whinnying plaintively as the trailer rattled and creaked out of the yard and down the drive to the highway.
Left behind, the red gelding ran up and down the corral fence, calling out, frantic now, a heartrending sound that echoed in the cold air beneath the tall, leafless trees.
Etta turned and went to the fence, put a hand up to stroke his neck, murmuring, “Little Gus . . ." For an instant she put her face to his neck and his thick winter hair, inhaling the horse scent of him that she had always loved. Then, quivering, the horse jerked from her and ran to the corner, straining and looking off in the direction of the now disappeared trailer, as if he could still see and hear what Etta could not. She gazed at him, at his flying mane and tail and the burst of early morning sun glinting on his raggedy sorrel coat. Tears choked in her throat but wouldn’t come out her eyes.
“Damn you for dyin’, Roy Rivers,” she said through clenched teeth.
* * * *
“Leave that horse and get yourself in here,” Latrice said from the back porch. “Come on, honey. There’s nothin’ more to be done out here. You’ll just catch your death, and then I’ll have to bury you both.”
Drawn along by Latrice’s command—Latrice did have a commanding way of speaking—Etta started for the house. The rising sun cast soft golden rays over it all—long and thick and solid, gray stucco on the bottom and brown shingles on the top, and colored glass in the staircase window. The porch at back wrapped around the side and stood there waiting to give shelter. Etta had always adored the house, but found it hard to look at in this moment. She found it a difficult reminder of her disappointments.
When she was almost to the porch, she caught the faint, familiar aroma that caused her stomach to turn over. Pausing with her foot on the first step, she glanced at Latrice. Latrice looked back.
“Where is it?” Etta demanded.
She looked around Latrice’ s body and spied the black cord snaking out the kitchen window. It ran around the corner. Etta stalked past Latrice, peered around the corner, and beheld the offensive sight of the electric percolator sitting on the porch floor. She stared at the chrome pot, and then she flounced around and marched past Latrice and on into the house, letting the screened door bang. In the kitchen, the radio announcer was booming from the radio: “Now brothers and sisters, let’s join in a hymn and dedicate it to the generous folks at Bright and White Grocery and Wayman’s House of Furniture.”
Latrice kept the radio loud so as not to miss one precious word of the daily sermon while she moved about the house. Latrice was devoted but mainly she didn’t want to miss a chance to correct the preacher, an opportunity that seemed to come her way daily. Latrice had read and knew the Bible backwards and forwards, as she had most of Shakespeare, the Constitution, and much of William Faulkner, until his last novels, which she deemed unworthy. All of this literary intake made Latrice very hard to argue with; she could attack with some big, confusing words.
Etta, retying the belt of her robe, crossed the kitchen and banged through the swinging door into the dining room, passed the table that was loaded with funeral food—covered dishes, pies and cakes and breads that wouldn’t spoil— and over to lift the lid on the big galvanized cooler sent over by the owner of the bottling plant—Drew Pierce, who’d been about Roy’s best friend, both of them kind hearts and fast-living heartbreak men.
Etta plunged her hand down into the watery ice, pulled out a bottle of Royal Crown Cola, snapped the lid off on the opener, then hurried on through the living room, feeling her stomach coming up in her throat. She didn’t realize she still wore her old boots until she caught the left one on a step and stumbled. She shook the boots off right there and left them on the stair, and raced on upward, bare feet smacking on the oak flooring, clutching the bottle of cola with one hand and her belly with the other. She raced down the hall, the entire time thinking that she absolutely would not throw up.
As she passed her and Roy’s bedroom, she veered to the far side away from it, keeping her eyes straight ahead so as to not look in the doorway which Latrice made certain stayed wide open. Floating up after her from the living room came the chimes of the New Haven mantel clock— Roy’s mother’s beloved clock, calling out quarter past the hour and seeming to call it out as a threat, too.
Hearing it, Etta had the really wild and strange urge to go knock that clock flying and scream, Who’s gonna wind your mother’s clock now, Roy?
The clock would go for ten or twelve days on one winding, but Roy had wound it every Monday morning because that had been how his mother had done it. Roy doing that one thing so reliably seemed the strangest thing. Roy was not a reliable sort of man, which was not to say that he was never reliable but more saying don’t count on him to be.
Then, sinking down on the side of the bed, pressing her arm tight over her midsection and a hand tight over her mouth, Etta rocked back and forth and thought: Roy was no longer and had become had been.
* * *
In that moment, if anyone had asked Etta what she wanted most in the entire world, she would have said, “Coffee!”
She would have screamed it. She had lost her husband and was little by little losing all she possessed, and here she sat thinking she would just about kill for a cup of coffee. That struck her as obscene, if not on the verge of insanity.
Oh, Lordy, she thought, wiping the cool, moist RC bottle across her forehead.
Here she was, six months pregnant and still suffering morning sickness until noon. The mere aroma of coffee at dawn would send her rushing for the bathroom. The sound of her retching had so unnerved Roy that he took to driving down to Obie’s cottage to enjoy his morning coffee. The fancy obstetrician prescribed a new wonder drug, but it didn’t work. The obstetrician said it was all in Etta’s mind, and she told him that it was there and in her stomach, too, and if he wanted to find out to please come over one morning and she would throw up last night’s supper on him.
Latrice’s footsteps broke into Etta’s thoughts.
She entered the room. “Here’s some hot cola syrup, honey, and a piece of jelly bread.” These were Latrice’s anti-nausea potions. They did not cure but they did a sight more than the fancy doctor’s medicine. These foods stayed down.
Twenty years ago Latrice had been a midwife, learning her skill as an assistant to her own mother. She had delivered babies, Negro, white, Indian, and a mixture, many of whom had been turned away from real doctors because of their race or inability to pay. Times changed and a worship of hospitals flourished, curtailing Latrice’s practice, a fact she considered an outrageous waste of her talent.
Etta lifted the cold bottle of RC for Latrice’s viewing.
“Give me that.” Latrice snatched the bottle away. “You shouldn’t be havin’ cold stuff on your stomach.”
“Well, you made yourself coffee,” Etta accused, vaguely realizing the two statements did not at all relate.
“Yes, I did. I felt the need of sustenance. Now, here . . . drink this cola while it is hot so it will calm your stomach.”
“It isn’t coffee.”
Etta had the urge to throw the cup across the room and was somewhat shocked at herself, for she had never done such a thing. Momentarily intrigued by the prospect, she wondered what such a burst of emotion would feel like. The next instant she thought about having to clean up the mess and simply felt too tired for it.
“Apparently,” she said, casting Latrice a dark look from beneath her lashes, “I am quite alone in my sufferin’.”
“No, you aren’t, honey . . . we’re all sufferin’ right along with you, believe me,” Latrice said smartly. Then she noticed Etta’s hand shaking and guilt pricked her. Her mood was stretched thin; her quickly gulped cup of coffee had only made her crave more.