by Liana V. Andreasen
I’m filling the buckets with water and I take them to the stalls, one stall at a time. My boots thump on the hardened dirt floor of the barn.
How did I let Dan talk me into this?
Just that morning, he told me I would be helping by writing the names of those who bought raffle tickets for the Cadillac, to save the horse business from bankruptcy. That Cadillac, the “new, only driven a few times in ten years” Cadillac that has been sitting in the grass by the barn door the whole time I’ve worked at the stable. He even tried to teach me to drive on it once, but he stopped me when I almost backed into the barn.
With the raffle tickets, he ran such a campaign with me that, against all of my better instincts, I did in fact talk to people from my classes, trying to get the twenty dollars for a ticket from as many as I could. I sold two. Two other friends sent twenty dollars from Maryland, one of whom was my Faulkner professor who was born on a ranch in Montana. He sounded pretty sure he wouldn’t really win a Cadillac. I bought three tickets myself. I still have a huge stack of tickets, and the pig roast and raffle are tomorrow.
The line he sold me on was the heartbreaking “If I go bankrupt, the state will sell the horses to dogfood companies.” I did ask him why he didn’t just sell half of the horses, or all of them, and retire, and he said there was no other way he would live the rest of his life than on that farm, doing what he was doing. He said if he did go bankrupt he’d be waiting here, in his house, with a gun, and he would go down in flames.
I know he’s not lying, because he does have a gun for every square foot of the house. I counted thirty downstairs, and I’m sure he has more upstairs where he sleeps. Two rifles — I hope they’re not loaded and I have no clue how to check — are my props at night, to secure on both sides the dirty curtain that passes for a door to the room where I sleep.
Not that I’m afraid; he could have raped me a month ago when I came into his house, if he’d really wanted to. I just don’t want him to be able to see in my room, though he says he’s seen it all in his time. At this point, two days before I leave, there’s nothing left of the fear I came here with, the one that gave me a big-time nightmare on the first night.
No, I’m not afraid of him. I don’t quite know what he is to me. He’s a 59-year old cowboy close to bankruptcy, with twenty horses that I know by name and whose manure — he says “horseshit,” of course — I’ve been shoveling for a month because I really wanted to work on a farm and “learn about horses.”
How many times must he have scorned city people for giving him that line. I’ve been living in his house because I don’t have a car to drive back and forth every day. He brought me here in his old truck just before it stopped working.
The raffle tickets. As I promised, I tear the paper out of the notebook he handed me, and I tear each page into smaller sheets. I start writing the names carefully: one for Patrick from Kenya, one for the Chinese student, the quiet-weird-international-student-from-communist-country just like me, who I knew would not have said no to me. Three tickets for me. One for the Maryland professor who loves horses and Faulkner. One more for the other friend. About fifty more for whoever bought them from Dan.
Dan has put on his glasses, and now he lost a little of the look that spells angry cowboy who will shoot you five times without even looking, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He watches me calmly over the dusty boxes and tools and stacks of dishes on the kitchen table. “If you’re going to use them, you’re going to need them where you eat,” he says. It’s the only table in the house with room to put something on it. I finish writing the names he gave me, and now he says what I dreaded he would say.
“Now make up some names.”
I can’t believe I let Dan talk me into this. I did suspect he wasn’t really going to let the Cadillac — worth at least three thousand, he said — go to one of the fifty-sixty people who paid twenty dollars. And, let’s face it, some of it is my fault for not convincing thousands of students and professors at the university to buy raffle tickets for a Cadillac on a horse farm, so I did expect him to do something about such slim pickings.
I just wasn’t sure in what way he would involve me. Would he shoot the person who won the Cadillac and ask me to help dig a grave? Not too plausible, since he proved sane enough not to rape his twenty-something year-old female help, whom he repeatedly asked to smoke pot with him so she’d “jump into his lap like all women who smoke pot with him.” He would not be any less sane about shooting people for a car. He would shoot the authorities if they came to get his horses, that’s what he says, but he would not kill for a car.
“But, Dan, I can’t do it. You want me to lie to the people who are coming to the pig roast?”
“They’ll still have a chance,” he mumbles, coughing. “We just need about a hundred or two hundred other names so we have more to draw from.”
My nice-girl upbringing is squirming and cringing inside, and just then he gives the final blow to that idealist that looks best on paper.
“If you don’t do it, I’ll have to do it myself. And my hands ache. See, they shake. Your handwriting is better than mine.”
If I don’t do it, it will get done anyway, I tell myself. I am not the engine to the crumbling of the world of great principles. He is doing it, I’m just helping in a way that is neither here nor there. Just as I did with the marijuana plants.
At the beginning, the same cringing, squirming voice raised objections: you can’t carry water through the woods to the marijuana plants. It would be as if you were growing them yourself. You’re watering them, you’re an accessory to crime. Drug cartels, the voice said. Decapitated people. Child labor. Smuggling. Marijuana plants. Now you are growing marijuana.
That voice went away when I explained to it, look, Dan would carry twenty gallons of water in each hand by himself, four times instead of two, and even if he is stronger than you because he piles the horseshit higher than you in the wheelbarrow, he is frail, he has worked hard for many years, and he took care of twenty horses by himself after his second wife, Jerry, left him because “she could not take it anymore.” Dan still doesn’t know what she meant, and I try not to imagine too much past his rough stubbornness.
And he shoveled horseshit and carried bales of hay from truck to barn to field, from truck to barn to field, brushing horses, saddling them, as grumpy with them as he is with people, for sixteen years. That’s what he told me. Sixteen years ago, that was when he could no longer be an engineer. It made him a pretty penny, but he couldn’t stand working for other people anymore, not without constantly getting into fights and seeing the inside of jails a little too often, and screwing up his liver with alcohol because he did not feel free.
Then he started working for a big horseback-riding business, where he kept his horse, at Pleasant Hill. He hated the way they treated the horses there. They put too many in a stall, put heavy people on small horses and some of the employees rode bareback, bending the horses’ backs. Using English saddles instead of Western, the tiny English saddles on which they trot like pompous fools pounding on the back of the horse instead of riding with the horse, as cowboys do, as he learned long ago from Arizona cowboys who ride on Western saddles to distribute their weight evenly over the backs of the animals. This makes him the only true cowboy in Upstate New York.
That was also when his first wife divorced him.
He decided then to use all his savings to build this business, and he swore he would charge less than the big stables, and treat the horses better, and he bought the land and cleared with his own hands the path through the woods, so people would enjoy their ride and get a bit of everything: go down the path while learning to lean back to help the horse keep its balance, then go through a tricky clearing that isn’t actually his land but it’s okay because it’s just a small clearing, then go up the hill and across a field with many crows flying around, where the horses feel like running but “you never let them run the horses!” as he said, one of the many things he yelled at me as he taught me how to be a trail guide. Then back through the woods and back to the barn.
I helped him carry the buckets of water through the woods, and we had to bend before getting to the trees, because bushes were too low and drivers on the road would see us and figure out what we were doing, because people just know what buckets with water are needed for when you go into the woods.
Most farmers grow marijuana, he said, but for him, he said, it’s a necessity. It’s just that little bit of extra income that keeps the horses from going to the dogfood factory. He’s planning something bigger than this, like renting one of the fields for an amusement park, but until then he’ll just grow and sell marijuana.
That’s how, in my mind, the watering of the plants became a sacred ritual, something as pure as the sight of horses on the field early in the morning, eating hay and running through the mist that lifts and joins the big swirls gathering above the treetops. Pure like the mist between those two hills that he showed me the first day, at five-thirty in the morning, when we took the wheelbarrows to the path in the woods, to dump the crap and fill the holes made by rain, so the horses wouldn’t trip.
The secret place with the marijuana plants was hard to reach, because he left the thorny, spidery bushes around them on purpose, so no one would find them. The palmed plants smelled and looked like Christmas trees, and I felt as if we were picking one to bring it to the house.
“We are such a team,” he said. “We are like a married couple except for the sex.” I always laugh to myself hearing that, because I still have no idea how I managed to dodge his advances, living in his house as I do, with the nearest neighbors half a mile away down the hill.
Haifa, my Syrian roommate, nearly fainted when he came to pick me up at the apartment, grumpy as always, eyes of steel, and jeans that seemed to have survived his return from Vietnam.
The marijuana plants were gone before the Cadillac raffle and the pig roast. A few days ago, he left me driving the tractor in the field where he taught riding lessons, and went to check on the plants.
When he came back, I could not even tell him proudly that I had hit a rock while cutting the grass and the big screw was busted, so I replaced it just as he’d shown me. Me, mechanically challenged, without a driver’s license. I could not tell him, because his face was grimmer than the day when he thought his horse was dying, and we had to walk the horse for six hours to get his cramps to cease.
Copyright © 2018 by Liana V. Andreasen