Thursday, January 8, 2009
In the spring of my fourteenth year, my parents decided to give me a horse for my birthday, and after some searching my father eventually brought home a gentle fourteen-year-old mare that I named Silver after the Lone Ranger’s big white stallion even though she looked nothing like her famous namesake. She was a Pinto, a painted pony with big splotches of brown and white, and we kept her in a dilapidated structure that might have been red once, a multipurpose building that was part garage, part barn, part pigpen, and part henhouse. She shared it with a small, similarly splotched flock of chickens that included White Leghorns, Buff Orphingtons, Rhode Island Reds, and Black Dominicks; and she also shared it with Lady Henrietta, the pig I was raising to meet the personal project requirement in Mr. Ben Barber’s ninth grade vocational agriculture class and who later provided us with a delicious supply of ham, sausage, bacon, and pork chops, Lady Henrietta I mean, not Mr. Ben Barber.
All summer long I rode Silver around our pasture bareback, using only a bridle because my parents couldn’t afford to buy a saddle and stirrups, and I loved that horse more than any dog or cat that ever lived. She had about two acres in which to roam and graze; a third acre held a vegetable garden and all sorts of trees that old Mrs. Mason, the former owner, had planted: apple trees, pear trees, peach trees, cherry trees, plum trees, persimmon trees, mulberry trees, and there were also fig bushes, blackberry bushes, a grape arbor, two big oaks, two big elms, and another dilapidated and unpainted structure that housed Mama, Daddy, and me in its four small rooms. Between the house and the barn-garage-pigpen-henhouse sat an old Dodge pickup that had seen better days, rusting, with grass and weeds growing up all around it and, thanks to holes in the floorboard, into it as well. We didn’t have indoor plumbing; whenever Nature called, we had to walk down a well-worn path about fifty yards to an outhouse. Every drop of water for drinking, cooking, and bathing was obtained by lowering a bucket on a rope over a pulley into a well next to the back door and drawing it out by hand, every drop except what we gathered in pots and pans and jars and basins whenever an occasional rainstorm pounded on our corrugated tin roof and demanded to be let through. On the kitchen counter sat a bucket we drank out of using a long-handled ladle. There was no sink. On the counter next to the bucket sat two basins, a round metal one, white with a red rim, where Mama put soapy water for washing dishes, and a square one made of red plastic where she put clear water for rinsing. When the dishwashing was finished, we simply opened the screen door and threw the water into the back yard. We bathed in a number three tin tub that my father would set in the middle of the kitchen, spreading newspapers around on the floor to absorb any water that might slosh over the edge of the tub onto the ancient, cracked, nondescript linoleum. The water for the tub and also for the dishwashing had to be heated on an equally ancient wood-burning stove. We had a wooden icebox instead of an electric refrigerator like everybody else, and supplying it with blocks of ice every week and emptying the drain pan every day were a regular part of our routine. Even allowing for it being Texas in the nineteen fifties, it was a pretty primitive existence; I was the only kid I knew who lived this way.
Eventually we acquired a real refrigerator and an electric stove from the local Western Auto store, but Daddy never did put in plumbing. The shallow well went not dry but bad when a film of oil developed on the water, so it became my job two or three times each week to go through Silver’s pasture carrying a five-gallon bucket in each hand or sometimes pulling my old Red Flyer wagon with a large metal garbage can balanced on top, to a neighbor’s house about a quarter of a mile away, where my parents had been given permission by Florabelle Oxley, Jimmy Wayne’s mother, to get our water supply from a hose hooked to an outdoor spigot on the side of their house. Sometimes I would call to Silver, “Hey, girl,” whereupon she would stop grazing, look up, and neigh softly as if to say she understood completely the humiliation I felt, having to depend on others and living in substandard housing herself. Today, all these years later, when I turn on the sprinklers to water my azaleas I still think about pulling that red wagon across Silver’s pasture to the Oxleys’ house to get water; it’s hard to forget that Florabelle Oxley’s Poland China hogs lived better than we did.
In late autumn, when the “blue norther” cold fronts for which Texas is famous came roaring down the plains from the Panhandle and the weather turned wintry, Silver stayed in the barn most of the time eating hay. By the time spring arrived, when Mrs. Mason’s jonquils and violets and irises and God’s bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes splattered our yard with their colors, my father thought Silver might be a bit skittish since she hadn’t been ridden all winter. “I’m going to ride the damn horse first,” he said. Mama didn’t think it was a good idea, but Daddy was adamant, and since he wore the pants in the family, the decision was made. Whether it was Silver’s skittishness or the fact that my father was twice my weight I’ll never know, but as he swung himself up onto her back she bolted out of the barn door and began galloping across the pasture with my father holding on for dear life. At the far fence line she made a turn and headed back straight toward the plum tree where Mama and I were standing and staring in disbelief. Daddy was yelling “Whoa! Whoa!” and doing his best to get the horse to stop, but Silver, who apparently wore the pants in her family, kept running toward us. When she reached her destination, she deftly scraped my father off her back under a low-hanging branch of the plum tree, then stopped and began grazing calmly as though nothing had happened. Daddy lay on the ground, conscious but stunned, trying to comprehend what had just occurred. By this time Mama was laughing hysterically. “What the hell are you laughing at?” Daddy demanded, but Mama just kept on laughing. Picking himself up off the ground, Daddy dusted himself off, said, “You damn fool,” and slowly made his way back to the house. The doctor said Daddy had three cracked ribs and taped his chest up for a month, Daddy’s chest I mean, not the doctor’s. Before the tape came off, Silver had been sold, and even though I cried buckets the day they took her away, my father never bought another horse.