The Sureness of Horses — Chapters 17, 18, and 19

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I didn’t like to think about why I’d waited decades to return to Barrington. My mother abused prescription drugs and alcohol and Dad had a hard time keeping a job—could high school have been anything I was eager to revisit? Leaving from the airport in San Francisco, I scribbled down the start of a list, or even a poem: Step One: Wait Twenty-Two Years.

The expensive suburb made me feel poor, especially since my first love, Barbara, from a wealthy family, had left me. I had used frequent-flyer miles to upgrade. Step Two: Go First Class.

How lush the green land was as the airplane descended into O’Hare airport. My eyes filled with tears and I felt a little woozy. When I deplaned, I was pleased a shiny blue sedan waited for me, trunk raised for my luggage, another frequent-flier benefit. At least I’m not returning home in a potato truck.

I drove to the prospect’s offices in Hinsdale, a suburb twenty minutes south from the airport, where I met with a group of local investors who wanted to refurbish nine theaters. My job, theoretically, was to introduce them to our sound systems, but my real job was to sell. I think I impressed them not only by my product, but by using pictures of their own theaters, which I pulled off the Internet, in my presentation. When they responded positively, I called Ray to negotiate a price they could present to their board of directors. Pleased they were serious, I drove thirty-five miles north to Barrington.

The terrain seemed inexplicably familiar. I’d heard of a new concept in physics that says people are connected to their place on earth through patterns in the earth’s molecular structure. I felt remarkably at home under towering white clouds, the kind I seldom saw in California.

Rather than heading to the northern part of Barrington, where I’d finished elementary school, I first drove into the center of town. Its rural feel was moving toward upscale suburban. I felt I was in two worlds—real people were walking about, looking like the people I’d seen in California that very same morning, but they were walking on streets that belonged in my childhood. I suddenly knew Step Three: Hit All the Old Haunts.

I passed the barbershop, its red-and-blue pole still swirling as it had when I was young. On haircut days, I’d run the six or seven blocks from high school into town to get a jump on the other boys. It was my earliest brush with tempis fugit; five minutes could save me an hour.

I drove past the high school, which, because it supported miles and miles of surrounding farm country, was surprisingly large. The school’s clay-colored brick core was three stories, with wings of classrooms that protruded into the northern Illinois plains. I spotted the Mrs. Hautch’s classroom, where I had disappointed her. After her encouragement, I’d worked hard to get into college the first semester of my senior year, and earned an ‘A-.’ But I’d slacked off after the college applications were in. She’d looked so pained when she handed the first quiz back to me with a ‘D’ on top—et tu, Wade?

I hung a U-turn and headed back to town, and searched for the drive-in burger place, The Spot. It was the place I thought of when I watched American Graffiti, which I’d seen three times. That would be a good feeling to recapture, I thought.

Long before Spielberg’s movie, I’d cruised The Spot slowly in Dad’s Pontiac Catalina, bought right before he lost his last job. Tonight I drove to The Spot in minutes, but when I found the location, the drive-in was gone, replaced by a Ten-Minute-Lube. I sighed, saying goodbye to long summer evenings and chocolate malts.

As the sun set among the massive clouds, I left town and drove north toward my old home, turning in to North Barrington Elementary School. From there I traced the path I used to walk to my house with my friends. Ancient conversations came back to me: What about the Giants swarming out of the dugout to throw punches at Don Drysdale? Normal adults don’t beat each other up, do they? Why did God put sex the same place where you go to the bathroom? And why did Jimmy’s mom meet me at the door in her lacy underwear and slip? The bra was unlike any I’d ever seen—no shoulder straps! When I stared, trying to understand what magic held it up; did she have to smile so directly at me?

Unlike those slow walks, the drive from school to my old house took just minutes. When I saw my childhood home, now with two modest cars in the driveway, I almost turned around. But this was why I came, right? What I should do is knock on the front door. Any chance they’d let me in?

Step Four: Knock on the Door of the House Where You Lived. When I worked up my nerve and rapped on the door, a woman’s voice answered from a distant part of the house. “Who is it?”

I took a step back, not to seem too aggressive. “My name is Wade Middleton. I used to live here.”

She opened the door a crack, revealing her short gray hair and bright, kind eyes. I thought the style they called her hair was a “pixie.” She introduced herself as Martha. “How long ago?” she asked, still tentative.

“I left in the early eighties. You’ve sure kept it up.”

She opened the door wider. “Oh, we came in ninety-four. Come in.”

A man with rolled-up sleeves stared out from the darkness inside the house. “I’m Tom,” he said. “You say you’re from California?”

I entered a foyer next to the living room. Looking at the intricate wood ceiling and stone fireplace, I said, “I don’t remember it being so elegant.”

Tom put down some wire-cutters he had in his hand and moved reluctantly forward. “I spent three months sanding down the ceiling. It had been painted over. Everything needed work. The toughest was the crawl space—the lightest rain would fill it up.”

I remembered problems Dad couldn’t fix. “So, Tom, what do you do?”

“I’m the vice principal at a high school on the North side, where Martha teaches English. It’s a long commute, but we love the rural feel out here. How about you?”

“Oh, I work for a company that wires movie houses for sound; that’s my day job anyway. I also write some poems.”

“Really? Martha, where’s that old book I found?”

“It’s around here someplace—I just saw it last week. I’ll make some coffee. Tom, why don’t you take him upstairs.”

I followed Tom up a short stairway to a small room set among the sloping roofs. “This was my older sister’s room.” It had a tiny balcony overlooking the front yard. “I think she might have snuck out once or twice.”

Tom laughed. “We raised a daughter in here, too. Maybe she did as well.”

Tom and I walked into my old room, built over the two-car garage. I could almost touch the plasterboard ceiling. “As I was growing up here, an aspiring basketball player, I used to jump to the ceiling, no more than oh, ten or twenty thousand times.”

Tom laughed.

I’d loved basketball in eighth grade, when I practiced shots for hours and made the team, and found my moment of glory when I’d fashioned an improbable hook shot to win a game. But I never grew past five foot nine, and when I got to high school the townies, from a bigger school with real coaching, ran circles around me.

I stopped in the hallway up on the next level when I saw my parents’ room, where Mother often lay when I came home. Each day was slightly different. Sometimes she would be lucid but argumentative. The worst days she would lie barely conscious, sometimes half-dressed, her speech slurred. Another step came to me. Step Five: Inside Your Old House, Hold Yourself Together.

The thing about an alcoholic that you never get over is that you’re always less important to them than their habit. These memories would keep anyone away, probably forever, I thought. I knew I’d stopped talking, but I couldn’t be social again. I started down the stairs with Tom behind me.

In the kitchen, Martha had filled three coffee mugs. “This house had had five or six owners in just a few years, and two divorces. The neighbors called it ‘the troubled house.’ Tom and I bought it after a young man’s fatal car wreck.”

Martha handed Tom a slim book, an old paperback with cardboard covers.

After he glanced at it for a second, Tom handed it to me. “I found it between joists in the crawl space off your old bedroom.”

I fingered it. “101 Favorite Poems. I vaguely remember it, I’m pretty sure. It’s a wonderful find.”

Martha topped off the mugs. “Read and see if it brings back any memories.”

I thought I might have remembered my father reading “Jes for Christmas” aloud to me and my sister. Could it have been from this book? Then I spotted my carefully-inscribed initials, WM, one the upside-down of the other, on the flyleaf. It was mine. I kept reading.

Martha asked, “Are these the kind of poems you write?”

“Well I don’t rhyme mine much. Sometimes. But these are great. Here, listen to the way Kipling starts ‘If’:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;”

Martha smiled warmly. “It should be yours.”

I shook my head. “No, I couldn’t take it from you. But here’s the part everybody remembers, the last stanza:

“’If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And —which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!’”

I remembered wishing I had a father who would talk to me like that. We ask so much of our parents. Be here now. I looked at my hosts. “Maybe I should work on rhyming mine more—there’s a power there.”

“It’s yours now.” Martha looked at Tom, who nodded in agreement.

I started to refuse it again, but the next step came to me: Step Six: Accept Life’s Gifts. “Well thank you, I’d love it.”

I drove West, toward the horsey-estates side of town, Barrington Hills. I passed the Country Club where I’d worn my first tux to escort Barbara to a cotillion. It wasn’t until I took a right on Otis Road that I realized I was headed for Barbara’s house. Step Seven: Ferret out the Pain.

That summer we’d spent so much time together, Barbara had sewn two sheets together. She would pretend to retire and slip out her first-floor window and join me in the barn, which, fortunately, wasn’t visible from the house. I thought of the night I gathered dry straw and Barbara stuffed it into the sheets, handful after handful. I had never been happier than when I drank in her nakedness or, better still, held her, made love to her. I loved her confidence; that she opened herself to me without fear. In her warmth, my concerns about my family and my future faded. We were in love—what else could it be—and that made everything right.

I never understood why, the next year, she had broken up with me. We were going to school a thousand miles apart when the phone calls became less frequent, and her letters, which had been filled with details of her days and specific longings for me, stopped. Her father, a big-league banker, didn’t like me. He referred to me as Barbara’s “beau.” Perhaps her father had convinced her to stop seeing me, maybe even with a reward. I’d never know for sure, but that spring he did give her a new yellow convertible.

But that could just be paranoia. My letters to Barbara were, compared to hers, sketchy. Maybe I hadn’t let her know how special I thought she was. Perhaps that was a lesson I needed to learn.

Barbara had become a raw memory, the girl who walked away. The sight of her father’s name on the mailbox made me feel almost as hopeless as I had in my mother’s room.

Lost in the memory of the times I’d met Barbara at the barn, I walked toward the dark structure.

Lights went on everywhere, and a bell clanged. Dogs started howling. I sprinted back to my car in my leather-soled shoes, slipping—once scraping my hand so it bled—before I drove off. When I was well down the road, a police cruiser passed me headed the other way, toward the barn, his red and blue lights pulsing.

On the night flight back to San Francisco, I was again up in the first class cabin. I befriended the man next to me. His tie, unlike mine, wasn’t loosened. I watched him remove his wingtips and change into slippers he carried in his briefcase, admiring how relaxed he seemed. He’s a lot more organized than I am, a real traveler.

After some prodding, the man divulged that he was a University provost, which sounded vaguely powerful and learned. He introduced himself as Peter, with a long last name I couldn’t quite distinguish.

When I pulled out the book Martha and Tom had given me, 101 Favorite Poems, the provost interrupted. “That book looks familiar. May I see it?”

I handed it to him.

“I had a book like this back in high school,” he said, handling the volume like a curator. “Mine wasn’t this tattered, but close. It’s a classic—Wordsworth, Shelley, Lord Byron—look, first copyrighted 1873. Almost 150 years. Imagine.” He handed it back. “So, tell me about yourself.”

Shyly at first, since the man seemed so accomplished, I described my life in Palo Alto. “And lately I’ve been seeing  a new lady. Sometimes I feel I’ve found the right one, but . . . right now we’re apart,” I concluded.

“Palo Alto’s a nice town. It’s where I met my wife.”

I envisioned Peter with a happy marriage. “So, do you have kids?”

Peter looked away. “My wife’s no longer with us. She got cancer very young. No children.”

“Oh my.” I touched Peter’s shoulder. “How did you get through?”

Peter shrugged. “I threw myself into my work.”

I raised my eyebrows. “That seems to be what we guys do.” I took a deep breath. I felt like when I stood outside my old house—I had an urge to take a chance. “I hate to impose,” I blurted out, “but I’d like a little help here. I have seven steps for a poem or article on going home. I need one more.”

“Steps?” Peter asked. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Pretend you had to choose one pithy thing to say to people who are returning home after a long time. What would it be?”

“You want me to distill life into one statement?” Peter laughed wryly and shook his head. “All right, what have you got already?”

I talked him through the steps. He smiled when I told him Wait twenty-two years, Go First Class, Hit All the Old Haunts, and Knock on the Door of the House where You Lived, but looked concerned when I mentioned Inside Your Old House, Hold Yourself Together. He smiled again at Accept Life’s Gifts, and said, “Good advice there, people have the hardest time accepting gifts, but they resent it when they don’t get them!” He laughed.

When I came to Ferret out the Pain, Peter looked at me like a country doctor doing a diagnosis.

I didn’t want his analysis. I wanted a last step. “Whatever you say the last step is, Peter, that’s it. I won’t argue.”

He said, “Okay, I’ll think about it,” and returned to the poetry book.

A half hour later, as the pilot announced the plane was on final approach, my seatmate looked at me.

I quickly said, “So do you have one for me?”

“I might,” he said. The one I concentrate on is about holding yourself together. This guy’s confidence ebbs and flows. The trip home brings out his insecurities.”

I didn’t want to push deeper. “I guess. So . . . what’s the last step?”

“This isn’t going to end up in some newspaper as what the provost says, right?”

I laughed. “No, I’ll steal it as my own, I promise.”

“We need to buck this guy up. Kipling’s poem encourages trust. Trust yourself when all men doubt you. Things have always gone better for me when I do that. How about just Trust Yourself?”

I hesitated. The step didn’t sound as final as I’d hoped, and too easy somehow. But . . . this was a gift, and one of the steps was Accept Life’s Gifts. If I took it, the list would be complete. Done.

In the terminal, just beyond the security exit, a buffed-out Hispanic driver in a Navy sport coat and tie waited for the provost. I thought I saw the bulge of a gun near the driver’s shoulder as I shook Peter’s hand. “So it’s Step Eight: Trust Yourself?

The provost nodded. He said, “I fly quite a bit, and this might be the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me on a plane. Still, I’d like to read what you finally come up with.” With that, he handed me a business card, clapped me lightly on the shoulder, turned, and walked off with his driver.


I checked my answering machine when I got home. Jorge had left three messages. The last one ended, “Call me when you get in, no matter how late.”

It was after eleven, but I did what he asked. “Hey buddy, I’ve been thinking about you. What’s going on?”

“Eva’s sick, that’s one thing. She’s had a cough for two weeks and doctors have run two sets of allergy tests. They can’t find anything, so we’re back to square one. She woke us all up this morning—it’s pretty bad.”

“Is she going to school?”

“When she was absent so much we took her out of school. The weird thing is, when the doctor’s tests didn’t turn up anything, he asked if there were any problems at home.” He lowered his voice. “He wondered if it was . . . you know . . . emotional.”

“Oh, Jorge.”

“But the real problem,” he said, “is Billy-the-kid. He called Friday afternoon and told Marita to ask me to call him first thing the next day. But I wanted to talk to you first. Marita’s convinced that he’s got a job for me.”

“Well, you need a job, right?” I knew what he was asking and couldn’t face it.

“I don’t know, Wade.” Jorge took a deep breath. “Okay. I guess you’re right. I have to call him.”

“I don’t see what harm talking to him can do.” A white lie, at best. Guys like Billy can do a lot of harm.

“Marita said he wants me to come into his offices. Offices? I swear there’s something very weird about that guy. But you’re right, I’ll call him.”

My cell phone rang the next morning on the way to work. It was Jorge. “I’m sitting at Whileaway Circle, in Woodside. Six names are nailed to boards on a tree, including Buchanan and Tyler. So this is where the hotshots live. The lots must be two acres or even five.”

“Why in the world are you there, Jorge?”

“I don’t know. I went to the Internet. The search for a ‘Billy Tyler’ produced four entries: a public relations announcement of his transfer to California—that law firm of his father’s is huge; two of his law cases; and a recent entry—something where he’d contributed to a politician—that gave his home address. MapQuest showed me it was close to where I’m supposed to meet him later this morning, so I thought I’d see how these guys live. Top-drawer.”

“I guess,” I said. “Joan Baez lives up there. And the founder of Oracle, Larry Ellison, has a house in Woodside, too. He’s on all the richest-Americans lists.”

“I’m heading out, but I can see a couple of the houses. One’s modern, the other traditional, both huge of course, with barns and rail fences. Wade, you won’t believe how these guys live. One house had at least ten guys laying sod. Another world. I think I’ll go into that little village I passed on my way in here and grab a cup of coffee before I see Billy.”

“I just pulled into the parking lot here at work, Jorge—I need to get upstairs and make a phone call back East. But that will only take a few minutes, after that I’m free all morning. Sure, go into Woodside and grab a cup of coffee to settle down, and then go see Billy. Call me when you get out. Don’t let their mansions intimidate you.”

“Oh, believe me, seeing this does just the opposite. This valley’s all about money and I need some. Bad. Why don’t you come up to that coffee shop—Buck’s—in two hours—I’ll return there after my interview.”

“Sure, I know Buck’s. I’ll be there around eleven.”

I got to Buck’s Restaurant, a peninsula institution, before Jorge returned. You wouldn’t think this is where deals get done, I thought as I stood in front of the most famous of its hundreds of knick-knacks, a mounted buffalo head.

I took a seat in a booth and read a morning Chronicle that had been left on the table. When Jorge came in, he said, “He pretty much offered me a job, Wade, with stock options.”

“Tell me more.”

“I will, but first, did you see that huge buffalo head on the wall over there? I swear its eyes move when a customer goes by. It must be some kind of trick.”

“Yes, you’re right, the eyes move. Nobody’s sure how he does it. The owner’s a character. That’s him over in the corner—I’ll introduce you. But first I want to hear about your meeting.”

“Billy’s office is amazing, the whole building. Tall ceilings, French furniture, big plants everywhere.”

“It’s actually Diana’s husband’s father’s building. Everyone there works for him, including Billy . . .”

“At any rate it’s impressive. This knockout redhead came and met me in the lobby. Robin. She could have been a model—fit right in with the place. The law offices were nothing like SnyderSound. Billy’s office had a view of San Francisco Bay, with a putting green in the corner.”

“Whoa,” I said.

“Robin was a personnel specialist. Billy said Enersystems would have to make the actual offer, but that Robin was taking furious notes. She handed me some brochures about the company. From there on, Billy didn’t say too much. She kind of ran the meeting. She said afterwards she’d fax her notes over to Enersystems and they’d make the offer.”

“What’s the job?”

“They’re making a lot of presentations, especially to the Energy Commission in Sacramento. Most of the pitches have graphics and video in them. I’d be the part of the team that makes sure nothing goes wrong. No glitches, he said. Troubleshoot technically, you know.”

“That’s it? You could do it with your left hand.”

“It sounded like something they could hire a contractor for. I asked them about that.”

“Gutsy.” I looked at the buffalo head, trying to figure out how the owner, who, table by table, was slowly moving our way, manages to get the eyes to move. “How did Billy respond?”

“He said that the main part of the job is confidentiality. Only trusted Enersystems employees can attend these meetings—no contractors. He said the job would have stock options to tie me to the company. He claimed I could make thousands of dollars on them. Actually he said hundreds of thousands but I’m not about to believe that. He explained I could sell the shares or borrow on them—some in twelve months and some in twenty-four months. Seven thousand shares each time, with a strike price of $20. It was a little confusing . . .”

“—It means you have to pay $20 a share,” I interjected. “The question is what the shares are worth. Let me check.” I thumbed to the business section. “. . . Holy shit, Enersystems is selling for just under forty dollars. If you vested today, you’d make almost twenty dollars a share. Seven thousand shares today would net you . . . a hundred and forty thousand dollars, like Billy said. That’s hard to believe. Are you sure he said twenty dollars a share?”

“I wrote it down,” Jorge said. “Look.”

“Did he talk salary?”

“At least twenty percent over what I made at SnyderSound, he said. They didn’t mention a specific number.”

“Why aren’t you walking on air?”

“There was something he said at the end. He said my political views made him nervous the other night, but it helped that Marita seemed to have her head screwed on right.”

“That’s not a problem, is it?”

“If it ended there, no. But he went on. He said he wanted her to come into ‘his offices’ for a private conference to make him feel comfortable. He said he’d get everything started with Enersystems but he wouldn’t sign off on it until Marita came in for a private meeting. You have more business experience than I do. That’s strange, right?”

“It sure is,” I blurted out. “Beyond strange.” Now I was even surer of Billy’s intentions, except why pay Jorge so much? Marita was an attractive woman, but if that was what this was about, the amount of money seemed like overkill.

“The next thing you know,” Jorge said, “I was following Robin’s dinner-plate-sized derriere out past the leafy plants and French furniture. It wasn’t that long ago that I was following Günter under very different circumstances. How much better things look when people are hiring you than when they’re firing you.”

I took a deep breath. I almost told him he should forget Enersystems right then and there. That’s what my gut told me to do.

He took me off the hook by bringing up a new subject. “This restaurant is filled with people talking about startups and financing deals. When you were driving over, I asked this guy next to me—he just left—if he’d heard of Enersystems, that I might work there. He said yes, that they were very slick. ‘Everybody’s political, but Enersystems is even more so,’ he said. When I asked him what he meant, he said, ‘You’ll see.’”

I waited a beat before I responded. “Let me think all this over.”

“At the very least I can get Eva her own room,” Jorge said. “There’s a two-bedroom unit available in our building. That would be great.”

The restaurant’s colorful owner came by wearing an outsized cowboy hat and outlandish shirt with bucking red cows. When I introduced him, he noticed Jorge had ordered breakfast and asked, “Good pancakes? They’re our specialty,” and shook Jorge’s hand. He had one of those novelty joke buzzers in his palm. Jorge, taken completely by surprise, jumped a mile. He shook his head after the owner left.

I shrugged and said, “So much for local color. Where were we? Oh, yes, Billy. For all the good in this, buddy, I have to be honest. That’s a lot of money. I wonder exactly what Billy is up to.”

As soon as I said it that way, I was certain we both knew exactly what Billy was up to, words we could never say to one another.

Jorge wanted to pay the bill, but I insisted. On the way out I went into the restroom and washed my hands. I thought of Pontius Pilate and Lady Macbeth and all the hand-washers of history. I should have told him to get out while he still could.

When I saw Diana for coffee she wore the same creamy blouse I noticed the first time I met her. If she did this to get my attention, she succeeded. But, after small talk I brought up Jorge and Billy, which didn’t go over so well. “Don’t you think Billy’s wanting to meet with Marita is strange?” I asked.

“No, it’s business.” Diana seemed to be ready for this question. “Jolene already explained this to me. Billy wants to hire Jorge as a favor to all of us, but he wants to be sure before he brings him onto the team. Enersystems is involved in some critical political talks—the last thing they need is a loose cannon. And, though Marita has her idiosyncrasies, her politics makes him feel more comfortable about Jorge. Remember how he warmed to her at my party.”

Who could forget? “You really think that’s all there is to it?”

After a slight shake of her head Diana said, “Tell me all about your trip.”

I took a deep breath and told her I’d visited the house of an old girlfriend. “Barbara reminded me of you in a lot of ways. She had horses. Hers were Arabians. She didn’t look like you. Her hair was longer, and none of the red of your hair. Still . . . there’s a similarity.”

The coffee shop was almost deserted. She scrunched her face to show me she thought this was a strange thing to bring up. “Was she at the house you visited?”

“Oh, no, Barbara’s long gone from Barrington. She lives in New Mexico now. Her parent’s house—estate really, a spread with a covered ring and a barn—was deserted.” I laughed, trying to set Diana up for how I’d made a fool of myself. “I walked out to her empty barn and tripped a security alarm. I jumped like a jackrabbit.”

“That is strange.” Diana shook her head and then looked at me directly, so that the imperfection around her eye was more apparent than usual. “Why are you telling me this? Are you planning to see her or something?”

“No, no. I haven’t talked to her in twenty years. If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t think about her at all.”

She nodded. “I’ve been thinking a lot about you too. Good thoughts, mainly.”

We sipped coffee. Her hand moved nearer mine on the table. “Yesterday I told Rob I wouldn’t play wifey at the partner’s retreat ever again. That Christmas party was my last. Period.”

I moved my hand closer to hers. “How’d he take it?”

“Not well. He was dropping the kids off, happy as can be until I said no more partner parties. It was like I punched him in the stomach.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“We’re both so committed to the kids, but I can’t pretend that nothing’s happened any longer. I almost mentioned the D word to him.”

“You’re afraid to even say the word divorce?”

“Not now, Wade . . .”

I moved my hand the last few inches to hers.

At home I had a message waiting from Amelia. When I called her back, I could hear music—something metallic—blaring. I sure wish her cell phone worked in the dorm—the phone I had to call in the hallway was a pain. “Just a second,” she said. A door slammed and the noise hushed. “I wanted to talk to you more about horses, Dad. I’m so excited you’re riding. I’m getting serious about bringing Ahab down to Bard. I could stable him across the street from campus.”

“Bard seems more artsy than horsey,” I said. I was standing by the kitchen counter, sorting mail with my iPhone on speaker.

“They’re not mutually exclusive, Dad. In those old French caves, what’s the oldest art archaeologists find? Horses have inspired art for a long time. And, to change the subject, there are a lot of horses in Mexico. I hope we can go.”

“Are you going to use Ahab as a subject for your photographs?”

“I hadn’t thought about it—that’s not my kind of photography. Still . . . an interesting idea.” After a pause, she said, “Do you canter?”

“Some. Mainly we walk and trot.” I realized I’d never told Amelia about going out with the hounds, but it was a subject that would take a while so I didn’t mention it. “Diana’s afraid I’ll stop riding if I fall.”

“I almost quit the first time I came off. I cracked a rib.”

“You cracked a rib!” I dropped the mail and sat down on the sofa. “When?”

“Last summer. Not on Ahab. It was before Christmas. Mom and I agreed not to tell you so you wouldn’t worry.”

I felt a flash of anger at Liz. They were obviously in cahoots about horses—I wondered what else I hadn’t been told. I worked on holding my tongue.

Amelia quickly filled the silence. “Dad, are you riding horses just to get close to Diana or do you really like it?”

“I love it, honey. Sometimes I go out to the ranch even when I don’t have time to ride, just to feed Artemis. Groom her, give her a carrot, talk to her, all those things.”

“I was hoping that was true, Dad. That’s one of the things that made me call—I rode Ahab three times this weekend, and I cried when I had to leave him up there. Mom feeds him and everything but he hardly ever gets ridden. Horses need to get out . . . What breed is Artemis?”

“A Percheron mix. Some Thoroughbred I think. Everybody says she’s very much the mare. She’s particular about who rides her. She’s bucked a lot of people off but she and I get along fine. I spoil her.”

“Why am I not surprised? Maybe I can get out to California and we can ride together.”

“You should come. I want you to meet Diana and her kids. You could help Beth get through Paly.”

“I was thinking about something else for spring break . . . remember we talked about going to Mexico together? I want to learn Spanish over the summer in some out of the way place—perhaps we could visit a few likely towns?”

“I’d love that, honey. Get tickets in and out of Guanajuato—it’s central. We can go from there. Send me the dates and I’ll meet you there and rent a car. I love you,” I said.

She closed off by saying, “Me too. Thanks, Dad.”


Amelia and I spent the first two days in Mexico in the mountains—the  colonial towns of San Miguel de Allende and Querétaro, but Amelia never warmed to them. “Too touristy,” she said.

On the third day of our trip, we planned to drive to Acapulco. We got a late start, and then it seemed to take forever to get through Mexico City. By eight o’clock the sun was setting and we were still hours from the ocean. When we passed through a town with the sign, “Taxco, Mexico’s Silver Capital,” we agreed that it would be good to stop for the night. I found a parking place near where a policeman was directing traffic from a stand in the middle of an intersection. When I approached him, he stepped down.

“Hotel?” I asked him, working to drop the “h.”

Si, Santa Prisca,” he said, pointing down the street. “Es muy bonita.” I pressed a small coin into his palm. “Grazie, prego,” Amelia rolled her eyes.

Gracias,” he said without changing his expression, and re-mounted his stand.

The courtly man behind the desk at the Santa Prisca told me neither they, nor anyone downtown, had rooms, but his cousin had a place on the edge of town. After he made a phone call, he said, “He’s away this weekend, but they still have an opening.”

The hotel was a run-down three-story gray box across from a deserted gas station. Amelia and I climbed to the third floor to find two simple beds crammed into a small room. A small porch overlooked the gas station. Half of the tile bathroom was a shower with no curtain, something neither of us had ever seen before. A bare bulb hung from the ceiling. We looked at each other and shrugged.

I paid the young man a fraction of what we’d paid for the hotel in San Querétaro and carried the luggage upstairs. At last we were able to head out and find dinner.

How grown up she was looking, and pretty, I thought as we walked up a street and across a square to dinner. I loved the town squares, where people go in the evenings to see and be seen. She’d styled her hair in a buzz cut the last time I’d seen her, but the sides had grown in; it had lost its shock value. The young men on the square couldn’t keep their eyes off her.

At the restaurant table, Amelia said she didn’t think she wanted to stop in Acapulco tomorrow.

“No?” I asked incredulously. “I’d always wanted to go there.”

“Dad, maybe I could learn Spanish in some place like we were last night—Querétaro—but I’d like to experience the local culture. I saw license plates from Idaho and Georgia. I imagine Acapulco will be worse. Let’s get on to Oaxaca. That’s the town my friends talk about.”

“I’ve read about Acapulco all my life,” I said. “I’d really like to see it.”

“We’ve lost a day, Dad. What kind of photographs am I going to get in Acapulco?” She went to the ladies’ room.

A shy man in a necktie angled toward our table. After Amelia came back and sat down, he looked longingly at our bread.

Amelia, who was just returning to the table, seemed to understand what was going on but was too surprised to respond. There was no doubting his purpose. I wrapped the bread in a paper napkin, moved it to the edge of the table near him, and motioned.

He took the bread and quickly disappeared from the restaurant.

“Good job, Dad,” Amelia said. “I wish I had a picture of his face.”

“A camera would have scared him, I’m sure.” We were quiet for a while.

“I’m feeling a little guilty,” Amelia finally said. “Practically nobody here has cars. Except around Mexico City, it was mostly trucks on the highway. Ever since we landed, we’ve been in a bubble. Yesterday’s hotel had free shampoo, conditioner, and a shower cap—”

“Not tonight,” I interrupted. “But you’re right. To them, we’re rich Americans. I wish I spoke Spanish better, with your accent.”

“I’ve been working on it at Bard, with a guy from Costa Rica. I could teach you.”

“Is he a boyfriend?”

“Dad, isn’t that kind of a rude question? But no, I have no current boyfriend.”

Si. What’s the Spanish word for domani?”

“Enough Italian—mañana.”

Si, señorita Amelia, mañana.

“Oh, Dad, let’s call it a night.”

After I used our toilet it wouldn’t flush. I lifted the lid and found neither water nor the parts to make it work. “Oh, well,” I said to Amelia, “we only have to live with it for one night.” As I closed the tank, I knocked the only roll of toilet paper into the bowl. “Damn!” I pulled it out and deposited it in the tin can under the sink. I went down to the lobby and brought up a roll of toilet paper and a bucket of water to flush the toilet.

We slept on narrow beds. I awoke at dawn, when Amelia was whispering, “Dad.” She peeked out from behind the bathroom door. “I think I have the tourista.”

“It’s okay, honey, I’ll go downstairs and get something for you.”

Thankfully, the room clerk was behind his desk. “Pharmacia,” I said. “El mapo?”

He pulled out a tourist map. “Yo se.” He marked a place toward the center of town.

I pointed to my watch. “Que hora?”

He nodded. “Is okay. Venga.”

Exploring the early-morning streets of a place I never knew existed, feeling the small town wake up, block by block, as I walked, felt surprisingly good. Perhaps it was because I was on an errand of mercy for my daughter. I found pharmacy with its big green cross easily. It was indeed open and I was able to get Lomotil without a prescription. Walking back to the hotel, I had one of those moments where I felt completely alive. By the time I returned it was nine. Amelia had fallen back asleep. I left the medicine on the bedside table and went downstairs and looked at a newspaper, trying to discern what I could from the Spanish headlines.

When I went back upstairs, around ten, she was in the bathroom. “I’ll be a while, Dad,” she said. “Thanks for the medicine, and for cleaning up.” She spoke in a weak voice and sounded embarrassed. When she came out she said she didn’t think she could get back on the road again, but that she’d go with me to get some breakfast. “I’ll just have tea.”

At the outdoor café we found, Amelia seemed much different from the night before. She told me that the Lomotil was working, almost miraculously, and apologized for the mess she’d made in the bathroom. “And I’m sorry about last night. Of course we can stop in Acapulco. This trip is for both of us.”

When I thanked her, she talked about a guy at Bard, Jason. He wasn’t the guy from Costa Rica, and she claimed he wasn’t her boyfriend, but he sure did seem to come up in her conversations frequently. I considered probing a bit, but decided to talk about my own situation instead. “Diana and I are seeing less of each other now.”

Two policemen passed, cheerfully trailing behind a woman with a backside that swayed in in front of them. I grimaced when I realized that her walk reminded me of Marita.

Amelia asked, “Does she look like your new girlfriend?”

I shook my head. “Not really.”

“I’m just curious. I sure don’t need another mom, but I want to see you happy, and you never seemed happier than when you talked about Diana and her horses. What have you told her about me?”

“Oh, I brag on you. You’re my success story, and she always asks about Ahab. She likes Arabian horses. She loves to jump thoroughbreds, but she says she likes Arabians too. She has a feel for how to handle horses that I’m afraid I’ll never learn.”

“She sounds like a winner, Dad.” She took a deep breath and said, “Let’s push on to Acapulco. It is, after all, part of Mexico, and you deserve it after taking care of me so well. I feel almost myself again.”

Walking back to the car, as we discussed the cities we’d been to, and where we were going, Amelia put her arm in mine. Happiness, like the hungry man in the necktie, can arrive as if from nowhere and vanish as quickly into the night.

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