The Sureness of Horses, Chapters 1 and 2
It is not enough for a horseman to know how to ride; he must know how to fall.
At the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, headed home, I made a beeline for the gate that said San Francisco. The agent scanned my upgraded ticket and motioned me onboard early. On the plane, an attendant took my coat and directed me to a window seat of soft leather. Unfamiliar with first class, I settled into the spacious chair. The seat reclined almost like a bed, and the screen said the movies were free. Soon I was holding a chilled mimosa. So, this is how things feel up front.
I must have closed my eyes for a minute—I opened them to find an attractive woman tapping me on the shoulder, saying something about a package she had balanced on her chair arm. As she was speaking, a beefy airline steward came and lifted it up into the large bin overhead.
“Whoa, you don’t believe in traveling light, do you?” he said.
“Oh, sorry,” she said to him. “Thanks.”
She turned to me. “Problem solved. Sorry to bother you.”
She had dark brown hair with red highlights, with tasteful diamond stud earrings. She was more familiar with first class than I was. When I casually offered her a drink, she raised an eyebrow. “You’re kidding, right? They don’t usually charge up here.” Her voice, a bit lower than I’d noticed before, had a hint of a drawl.
Twain was right again: “It is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
She asked for water, making my offer seem even sillier.
Guessing that she was from Dallas. I told her about a poetry professor I’d taken a course from who had moved to Texas to teach at SMU.
I was lucky—she’d heard of the teacher. “I grew up in Dallas and went to SMU but I’m moving—moved—to California,” she said. “Palo Alto.”
When I told her I lived in Palo Alto she seemed to relax, taking a sip of water and looking over at me with a smile. A birthmark showed around her left eye, a shade lighter than her skin tone. I thought of the medieval cathedral builders who always made one flaw, so as not to compete with God. A noise came from under the seat in front of her, the muffled mew of a cat. She must have put the small pet-carrier down when I had my eyes closed. She reached down and set her cup of water inside. “There you go, Micah,” she said. As she extended a finger into the cage I saw a wedding ring. Oh, well.
The title of her book was obscured by her fingers, something about Starting Over and Does God Care? Curious, since she was wearing a ring, I asked, “Good book?”
She quickly nodded but then stopped and looked at the cover. “Christian, you know. Self-help. It’s quite good, actually.”
“My divorce was years ago,” I said. “Still I feel like I’m starting over.”
As she tilted her head toward me, I continued, “A poet friend helped me think it through. She asked what would I have changed: The world as it was then or myself as I was then? Because, given myself as I was then and the world as it was then, this poet said there was absolutely nothing else that could happen. I couldn’t disagree.”
“Really,” my seatmate said, obviously uncomfortable with continuing. She held her book almost like a shield. I certainly didn’t want to talk to someone who didn’t want to talk to me, so I opened the airline magazine, thinking: that should teach me not to talk to strangers. Our conversation was over before I’d learned her name.
Two hours later, after the plane landed, I looked at her again, a long look, and asked, “Are you headed south? My car is in the airport garage.”
“No thanks.” She hesitated and smiled. Maybe I hadn’t made such a fool of myself after all. She raised an eyebrow. “But you might help me with that package.” She pointed above us. “Watch out, it’s heavy.”
She backed into the aisle while I wrestled the parcel down from the overhead bin. It was heavy and awkward, bound with bubble-wrap and tape. I buy dog food in forty-pound sacks, and, although this wasn’t as big, it felt at least as heavy. “My God. What’s inside here?”
“It’s my jumping saddle,” she said. “It’s heavy because I threw in some trophies and stirrup-sets. Things I didn’t want to trust to the movers or the luggage handlers.”
A horsewoman? I hadn’t run into many horseback riders. As we moved up the aisle, I rested the package on seat backs, which worked fine until I left the plane. Walking up the jetway to the gate, briefcase hanging from one shoulder, my overnight bag from the other, I hugged the saddle to my chest.
In the airport she walked briskly alongside me, her large purse and pet carrier lightly dangling from the shoulder away from me. I had to scramble to keep up. “I guess neither of us checked anything,” I said.
“No. By the way, I’m Diana Buchanan.” She emphasized her last name as if I might know it.
We were swept along with other passengers. I wasn’t moving quickly; a few of them sped past me. When I hoisted the package up onto my shoulder, I felt something in my back snap. I couldn’t hold the saddle aloft; all I could do was manage its fall. I followed it with my hands, dropping to my knees. Plastic bubbles popped as it hit the floor.
“Sorry. I’m so sorry.” I tried to stand up but quickly folded into a crouch.
She—Diana, I reminded myself as I rested on my haunches—looked genuinely alarmed. “Are you all right?” She set her cat carrier down and lightly touched my back. “Here, let me get a cart.”
I struggled to help her lift the saddle in, then leaned on the handle as if it were a walker. Pathetic. I forced a smile. “I’d better take the elevator.”
“Poor guy,” she said. “ This is all my fault.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “How could you possibly drive?”
“I’ll be okay once I’m headed down the freeway.” I tried to laugh.
“No, I don’t think so. Look at you.” She shook her head. “You’ll have to leave your car here. I was planning to take a cab. You can ride along.”
“Thanks, but I need my car,” I said. “And I have to retrieve my dog from the vet. A few years ago my back snapped like this. A couple of days and I’ll be good as new.”
She hesitated, looking me over, obviously wondering what to do. Finally she said, “I’ll drive you home.”
In the parking lot, I guided her to my small, aging Audi wagon. I cranked the passenger seat down flat and slithered in. Diana was right; there was no way I could have driven.
She put her pet-carrier in back and adjusted the driver’s seat. At the exit booth she paid. Unable to retrieve my wallet, I didn’t argue, but I didn’t like feeling so helpless. I thought how tough it must be for those who depend on others for everything.
As Diana maneuvered the car onto the 101 Freeway, I lay on my back. The cool air of the bay felt good. The sunset colored the clouds orange with a little purple as they spilled over the amber hilltops. Fingers of fog filled the valleys.
“I had a convertible in my twenties,” I said, looking up at her. “A Corvair with a hundred and thirty thousand miles on it. Still it was fun. This would be a great time for a ragtop, just cool enough to put the heater on.”
“I had one back then, too—a white Porsche with red seats,” she said. “One year Rob had it waiting for me in the driveway for my birthday with a ribbon around it. It was cute, but convertibles are tough on the hair. I felt I needed a shampoo every time I got home.”
Her comment surprised me. “You ride horses, right? Doesn’t your hair get wrecked in those helmets?”
“But that’s for a good reason.” She smiled. “You earn helmet hair.”
It was so strange to look up at her in the driver’s seat of my car. I slowly moved the seat back up. “How do we get you home?” I asked. “Do you want to phone your . . . husband?”
“No, I haven’t talked to Rob for days. I think he’s in Chicago. Or headed to Los Angeles.” She shook her head and pulled a phone from her purse. “Could you call me a cab?”
The taxi arrived as she pulled into my driveway. “Perfect timing,” I said.
I stood gingerly, using the door for support.
She helped me into the house. “See, you can hardly stand up.”
I hobbled to the couch. “I’m fine.”
“I hate to leave you like this.”
What a nice thing to say, I thought. “You’ve done more than enough.”
“If you give me your vet’s number, I’ll let them know you won’t be coming tonight, and I’ll make an appointment for my cat.”
Painfully I took out my wallet, pulling out money for the parking and her cab, along with one of my business cards. I wrote down the vet’s info. I also wrote down my home number, “In case there’s a problem.” Well, it was the best I could do.
“Thanks, but I insist,” she said. She returned the money to my coffee table and looked at my card. “Oh, you’re a sound engineer. So many engineers in California! Rob tells me half the lawyers are Stanford engineers as well.”
“That’s what they call me, but I was an English major, and I didn’t go to Stanford. We make sound systems for movie theaters.”
She looked out at the taxi. “I’d better check on Micah and deal with the cab.”
Through the front window I watched Diana help the driver load the saddle and pet-carrier into the taxi. Even with her help, the young cabbie almost dropped the saddle as he lifted it into his trunk.
Diana brought my bag into the house. “Will you be all right?”
“Thanks to you, I will be.”
After she left, I took three ibuprofens. The only phone message was from my daughter, Amelia, asking me what I wanted for my birthday. To not turn forty-four was what I wanted . . . I’d get back to her later.
I pictured Diana again. She had a quiet presence that kept me thinking of her, a confidence. I’d never met anyone who didn’t like convertibles; I found myself shaking my head as I thought about it. She seemed so competent with my car. I wished I’d asked for her number.
I did a quick search. There were five Diana Buchanans on Facebook but none in Texas or California. LinkedIn—no. Nothing on Google or Yahoo either. I called 411, but they didn’t find any trace of Diana Buchanan either. Feeling the Ibuprofen making me drowsy, I fell into bed.
The next morning, I heard a ring as light streamed into my bedroom. I squinted to bring the clock into focus, wondering about my back, which, in bed, felt okay. Eight twenty . . . a ring again, the doorbell . . . this early on a Saturday? When I stood up my back hurt, but I threw on my robe and shuffled through the living room to open the front door. “Jorge!” It was good to see him. “I thought you were in San Antonio.” I worked with Jorge; he was, remotely, part of my family.
“Wade, I’m glad you’re back, buddy.” Jorge smiled as he came in, showing off the twinkle of his eyes. But his broad shoulders were stooped, his usual assurance definitely missing. He looked withdrawn, almost scared.
I started to make coffee for us but I was so uncomfortable I stopped. “Sorry, Jorge, I threw my back out coming home from Dallas.” I propped myself against a stool and motioned for him to take over.
“We both have problems,” he said as he poured water into the coffee maker. “I was supposed to be in Texas with Marita and Eva. They miss their old friends. But Lydia canceled my trip.”
This wasn’t good. I sat down on the sofa, remembering how apprehensive I felt when I handed Lydia Jorge’s personnel file. She didn’t ask me anything about any of my employees, just thanked me for the folders.
The red light on the machine flashed; Jorge had coffee almost brewed. He took a seat across from me. “To start with, I’m out over two hundred bucks in ticket-change fees. And Lydia’s not the only one who seems to be freezing me out. Nobody lets me in on things, especially the managers. It’s not like when you were in my corner. Being in the dark sucks. Would you talk to her?”
Jorge never asked me for anything like this, so I hated to say no, but I had to. “I’m out of management now, so I can’t really do anything.”
He slouched, almost as if I’d hit him. He stood up and poured coffee for the two of us.
Jorge had been orphaned when my father’s sister died young, of cancer. She wasn’t his birth mother, so ours wasn’t a blood relationship, but I thought of him like family and I liked him. Five years earlier, I’d helped talk him into coming to California. The day after Eva was born, after I visited Marita in Stanford Hospital, Jorge had called me and asked me to be Eva’s godfather. I remember asking Liz, my wife then, what that meant. “It means you’re pretty special to them,” she said.
I stared at Jorge’s stooped shoulders. “Okay,” I told him, “I’ll go see Lydia on Monday. Just don’t expect miracles.”
“Well, you were kicked upstairs.” Since I work so closely with Ray Snyderman, the owner, I imagine Jorge thought I could whisper a word in his ear and Jorge’s problems would disappear. I took a deep breath. The coffee smelled good.
His cell phone rang. “It’s Marita,” he said, stepping away. “I’m at Wade’s.” He sounded relieved when he said, “He’s going to help me.”
I thought about Marita as I sipped my coffee. When I met her she was pregnant with Eva, a flower in full bloom. Born in Cuba, Marita was smart and ambitious for her daughter, full of energy; I could see her as an actress. Last spring, when Jorge’s car was in the shop and I picked him up for work, Marita came over and put her hands on the door where I’d lowered my window. “Wade, I think of you often.” As she spoke at my window, she leaned down so that her robe gapped open. “I’d love to thank you for all you’ve done for Jorge.” I should have looked away more quickly—she followed my eyes and her hand came to her chest, making me feel guilty. I wish I’d not stared, but Marita is picturesque, and I often wondered if Jorge was quite enough for her. But I tried to put her out of my mind by saying, silently, “forbidden fruit.”
Across the room, Jorge said goodbye to his wife and put his phone in his pocket. He was ready to leave. “Marita wanted me to thank you for helping.” He hesitated. “I’ve got to stop and pick up some milk. Can I get you anything?”
“No, but thanks.”
“Take care of that back. I’ll see you Monday,” he said as he walked to his Honda.
Enough daydreams about Marita. I needed to think about how to handle things with Jorge’s boss. Jorge is great with sound systems, but Lydia has never warmed to him. Now he was in hot water—I wondered what he’d done, and if there was something I could say to Lydia to turn her around.
The earliest I’d learn about what was going on with Jorge was Monday, from Lydia. Then my mind shifted to Diana. I shook my head. Chances are I’d never see her again.
I went back to bed; when I got up an hour later I tested my back. Most directions I moved hurt. No way could I drive. How could I get Keats home from the vet?
Saturday was the day I normally caught up on chores—exchanging my bachelor bundle at the neighborhood laundry; groceries; Costco. Not one of those tasks could be done without driving.
There was only one message, from Ray Snyderman, my boss and the company owner, addressed to the entire SnyderSound Company. “My fellow employees,” Ray began, without his usual executive oomph. He showed an uncharacteristic hesitancy as he announced an all-hands offsite meeting. I tried to imagine what lurked behind Ray’s voice and remembered the fear I’d seen on Jorge Calderon’s face.
I could get comfortable only sitting or lying down, so I settled in the living room, surrounding myself with pillows, my laptop Mac, and the phone. I started in on the mail, paying a couple of bills and glancing through a poetry anthology I had on the coffee table. I re-read one of my old favorites, “A Blessing.” The horses at the heart of the poem made me want to show the poem to Diana. But, I thought, you can’t. So take care of business.
An email from Ray detailed the specifics of the offsite meeting—we’d convene next week in the cavernous Stanford Theater in downtown Palo Alto, which seemed like overkill. The entire company had less than two hundred fifty employees. I remembered that Ray had been quizzing me more closely than usual on our sales prospects. Something big was going on.
Midmorning, out of the blue, Diana phoned. “I have a surprise. Would you mind if I stopped by?”
“Mind?” I asked. “No! I’d love to see you.”
I hobbled into the shower. Not much later, I was dressed. The relief of hearing from Diana faded when I looked around my house, which I hadn’t changed much since the divorce. The living room’s wonderful full-length windows were blocked by too much furniture, which included an assortment of canvas: tall director’s chairs, low-slung slings, even a purple denim and wrought-iron ottoman that didn’t match any of the other furniture. Still, I remembered being happy there with a poem on my lap, my legs stretched out on the denim. One thing I wouldn’t part with was the recliner I bought at a garage sale where, computer on my lap, sometimes with curious squirrels looking at me from the back yard, I would write poems.
The picture on the piano of my ex-wife Liz was so prominent that it looked like a shrine. I swapped it for a picture of Amelia clowning around in front of her artwork. My daughter looked small next to her art pieces, large black-and-white triptychs. I stood back to see how Amelia looked in the fancy frame on the piano. Better than the picture of Liz, for sure. Being careful with my back, I dragged two stained chairs and the ottoman to where I kept the garbage. I wanted to return Amelia’s phone call to find out what was going on in her life but not to discuss my upcoming birthday. I put it off. My back throbbed, but still I filled a bag with fading photographs and mementos brought back from trips (a starfish from Florida, a pink elephant from Thailand) and took them to the garage.
My bookcase needed attention as well. When I go to a reading, I like to buy the author’s latest work, so books were crammed everywhere. I weeded out the bookcase and, with some effort, carried three more shopping bags to the garage. That was about all the fixing-up I could do before Diana appeared at the front door with her surprise—my beagle. Keats came running in, his tail wagging wildly. He went a little nuts, leaping up next to me. But I’d trained him not to jump on people, and even in his wildest moment, he controlled himself.
Diana looked relaxed in jeans, a dark green T-shirt, and cordovan loafers with gold horse-bits. “The vet let me take him. I showed them your card and left my cat—that was enough.” She laughed. “What a name for a beagle, Keats.”
“His howling’s not the least poetic, that’s for sure. You should hear him when I leave.”
“He gave me a preview at the kennel.”
I watched Diana as she looked around. She lived in a pricier part of town. Mine was a simple three-bedroom ranch in South Palo Alto that I’d bought years back but could never afford today.
“I like the open feeling,” she said cheerily.
“It’s an Eichler. The idea in the fifties was to make stylish houses for the masses. They weren’t meant to last as long as they have, I’m afraid.”
“No, it’s great.” She surveyed the beamed ceilings and the indoor-outdoor patio through the sliding glass door. “California Casual, to take advantage of this weather. I’m starting to appreciate it.” Her eyes stopped at the photo on the piano. She looked over at me and raised her eyebrows.
“My daughter, off at Bard.”
“Back east, that Bard?” She sat across from me in the living room.
“Yeah, it’s hard to think Amelia is three thousand miles away. I never see her anymore, it seems. She’s a photography major and loves it. There’s some chance I’ll take her to Mexico over her spring break.”
“She looks like she’s having fun,” Diana said.
I touched a book I’d left out on the coffee table.
“What’s that?” Diana asked.
“I almost forgot. I saved the place one of my favorite poems, about horses. Would you like to hear it?”
She looked pleased at the offer, which is how I found myself reading James Wright to a virtual stranger.
“Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other. . . .”
I looked at her several times as I continued reading the second half of the poem. She seemed to be enjoying it, clear through to its last three lines, “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”
“You set that aside just for me? I’m flattered. I bet you write poetry, too . . . how about sharing one of yours?”
“I doubt I could compete with James Wright.”
“Is that a name I should know?” she asked.
“Not really, but a lot of poets love him. His work invites people in. I was hoping you’d like it too.”
Diana looked pensive. “Do you know James Wright? Can I see it?”
“Wright died some years ago—I never met him.” I handed her the book. “Here.”
She read the poem silently, nodding in appreciation. “I see all these markers in the book—you must read a lot. And you mentioned on the plane you know the poets out here.”
“I go to readings and workshops,” I said. “Maybe you could think of it as a hobby of mine.”
“Rob hated poetry,” she said. “He laughed at it.”
After a brief pause I said, “How’d it go with your cat?”
“Micah’s not in good shape. We may lose her. She’s seventeen.” Diana was quiet for a minute, looking away. “If we have to put her down it’ll be hard.”
“Do you have kids?” I asked.
“Yes, we had them after Micah. She was kind of our trial child.”
“That is hard. I hope she makes it. I remember when Amelia’s iguana died. We buried him under a tree, which is probably where most suburban iguanas end up. Amelia was a junior in high school then, and she was so quiet. Your kids must be younger.”
“Robbie’s starting seventh grade, and Beth will be a freshman at Palo Alto High School.”
“Paly, that’s where Amelia went.”
“You wriggled out of talking about your poetry.” Diana sat up straight. “Can I see one of your poems?”
“How about I show you one at dinner next week?”
She pursed her lips and stood. “It’s not you. I don’t date. I’m sorry. My husband and I are separated, but we have an agreement. It’s a long story.”
I got up and followed her to the door, standing as straight as I could. “So you are still married . . . I noticed the ring.”
“No, not really married.” She slouched and drew into herself, tightening her lips, which made her seem like a different person. “We live apart now.”
I leaned on a chair. “But . . . you can’t date?”
“I tried dating in Dallas. I wasn’t ready, and one night it upset the kids, so I told everyone I’d stopped.” She put down the poetry book and picked up Amelia’s picture. She regarded it tenderly and replaced it carefully. Her face relaxed and she asked, “Would having a cup of coffee be a date?”
“Absolutely not,” I responded.
“That might be the right answer.” She straightened up. “So, let’s think about coffee—It’d have to be after the kids start school. Maybe late next week.”
Later that week, Lydia, Jorge’s boss, ash-blonde hair pulled away from her face, came into my office and sat down. In the hall the previous morning, I had mentioned I wanted to meet with her, and here she was. She leaned forward and flipped the date page back and forth on my desk calendar.
I considered the two of us more or less equals since we both technically reported to Sherry Snyderman; if anything, I was senior to Lydia, since I’d preceded her and my real boss was the president of the company. I was his ‘sales guy’; so he had me reporting through his wife, the Marketing Director. But Lydia didn’t see things that way. For someone just out of business school, she was gutsy. “I don’t know what Mr. Snyderman has planned . . . I’d imagine you know more than I do, but let’s get down to business. You wanted to talk to me. About Calderon, right? Don’t ask me to do anything special for him.”
Not wanting to tip my hand, I shrugged.
She sat back. “If this is about the trip, forget it. Trips get canceled all the time. We’re running a business and we needed him in Denver. He’s the one who bought nonrefundable tickets. Calderon creates more problems than he solves.”
“I never found that to be true.”
“Well, that was when you were managing him—maybe you were better at it.” She laughed, but the muscles around her jaw were taut. “You’re strictly sales now. I manage the techies. I want to support your sales efforts, but seriously, Wade, don’t get mixed up in this. It’s inappropriate.”
I tried to keep a poker face. “What’s he done?”
She ignored my question and shot back, “All right, I know you’re tight with the owners—Ray and Sherry as you call them.” She stared at me. “I may call them Mr. and Mrs. Snyderman, but I am Calderon’s manager. He reports to me.”
“He’s the best customer tech at SnyderSound. He can make systems sound better than they are, you know that.”
“There’s more to the job than making the equipment run.” She rose and walked to the door. Over her shoulder she added, “Don’t get involved.”
Warm thanks to Jane Hirshfield and Jim Standish for permission to use their poems, to which they retain all rights.
© Kevin Arnold November, 2015