Accidents happen, and sometimes an accident is just that, a random convergence of time, motion, and unlucky objects. Other accidents beg for explanation.
In October, a week before my gray horse ran in the Brandywine International Three-Day Event, I came upon an accident. A wreck was not unusual in these suburbs south of Philadelphia. There was too much traffic, and the roads that connected the old village centers with the malls were narrow, with no shoulder and hundreds of ungoverned intersections. What was unusual was that I knew the people in the vehicle.
I was on my way back from an expensive celebratory lunch in the city. The sky was bright, the road was dry, and because it was a weekday afternoon, the traffic wasn’t heavy. I navigated curves that cut so close around the corners of old stone houses I could see through the four-on-four windows. An armchair. A clock standing across the room with a plant beside it. I was looking into these interiors without really seeing them because I was thinking about how a frailty, a tiny infirmity, could rob you of your place in the world. Last summer I had been a nationally ranked event rider. I took my horses to all the big three-day events on the East Coast. These aren’t horse races, where the horses make a mass charge from the starting gate. They’re triathlons, and each horse goes alone. Three days, three tests, and I rode them. Dressage, a test of required figures—like ice-skating—a test of brilliant obedience. Speed and Endurance—nobody used the formal title, we just called it the cross-country—a long test done at a flat-out gallop through fields and woods, whatever nature put in the horse’s way, along with some big solid obstacles we humans put in his way. I galloped the cross-country tracks, putting the horse to big, solid obstacles. Stadium Jumping, a test of agility after the exhaustion of speed and endurance. I always tried to make this look effortless for the horses. Often this worked. I did okay. Quite okay. I was in the money. Always in the money.
Now I had lost the ride on my own horse. I wouldn’t be the one riding the horse in the Brandywine, but I was the one who knew him. I could tell you what he’ll eat, how he runs, when he’ll take off for the jump. But I was sidelined on account of frailty, nerve damage caused by a fall. This was all the more frustrating because I was almost back to full coordination and strength. But not quite. That’s what was on my mind just as I drove up on the accident.
At the crest of a hill not five miles from our farm, I saw at the foot of it the red warning lights flashing on the cop cars and the tow truck and the wreck itself. Just beyond a narrow bridge at the bottom of the hill, a horse van had come to rest on its side at a place where a dirt lane led into a cow pasture. What remained of the cab and the front section of the box behind it was a charred framework. The rest of the vehicle appeared to be intact, although the sheet metal hood over the engine was scorched. The hulk gave off smoke, and on the part of the box where the aluminum wall and the paint survived, I saw broad blue and green stripes. They were familiar, just as familiar as the image of that ruined truck would become.
I pulled off the road just ahead of the little bridge and left the Mercedes. The air was acrid. The odor of burning, rubber, plastic, petroleum, and something else. A makeshift barrier of traffic cones separated the wreck and the official vehicles from the strip of road that remained open. Two state troopers were directing the driver of a tow truck, beckoning as he backed toward the burnt-out van. I stepped up to an orange cone just beside the nearest trooper. He was the younger of the two. Under his flat-brimmed hair, I could see the blond bristles left after his trooper’s haircut.
“Where is Joe Terrell?” Then an afterthought, “Sir.”
The trooper’s face and the flat brim swiveled in my direction. The gaze was the official, impartial, objective one that all troopers seem to have practiced in front of a mirror. He raised his palm to halt the tow truck.
“Where is Joe Terrell?” I repeated.
“Who are you?”
“Tink Elledge,” I said, and when that didn’t seem to move him one way or the other, I amplified this. “Leticia Elledge. I live a few miles from here, and I know Joe. What happened to him?”
“Can’t tell you that, ma’am.”
“’Cause I don’t know,” and maybe this was technically true, because the next thing he said was, “The ambulance left here a half an hour ago.”
“Was he alive?”
The trooper shrugged. “Can’t say.”
Because policy didn’t allow him to? Or because he couldn’t tell?
Then he seemed to explain. “The girl was in better shape, pretty good, in fact.”
“Patty,” and I described the girl, who, like Joe Terrell, worked for my friend and rival Win Guthrie. I had known her since she was a kindergartner. “Redhead? Big brown eyes?”
The trooper nodded. “Felt good enough to argue about lying down on the stretcher. Now, ma’am.” With a nod he indicated the other trooper and the tow truck driver and turned his attention to them.
“What about Win?”
“Who?” He made a backward sweeping motion with his hand to set the wrecker in motion again, and the tow truck’s backup beeper began.
“Win Guthrie. The guy who owns this van. Big tall guy? Probably in riding clothes?”
“Haven’t seen him.”
“Okay,” I breathed. Patty McLaren survived. Maybe Joe didn’t, and maybe Win didn’t know about any of this yet.
“What about the horses?”
He didn’t hear me. The tow truck was aligned now with the skeleton of the cab. “Sir, what about the horses?”
The trooper didn’t look in my direction, just shook his head.
“No horses on the van?” But among the burning smells, there was the one I couldn’t identify, something that smelled like a hair dryer that had got tangled up with its subject matter. “Why were there two people in the van if they weren’t hauling a horse?”
Over his shoulder he said, “There’s a horse on there, ma’am. But it burnt up.” That was the other smell.
“Okay,” I said again, but not to him. It was just a remark of calculation, a ticking off of the damages. I stood there, as close to those damages and the hulk of the van as the traffic cones would permit, and watched the big hook drop from the tow truck. As soon as the connection was solid, the hoist motor engaged. But before it raised the cab something in the body of the van moved. A slow scuffle scraping the wall of the van, a long, barely audible groan, then the thud of a large dense body.
“Stop!” I shouted at the tow truck and its startled operator. “Stop this thing!”
Now I had the attention of the other trooper. He was older, salt-and-pepper bristles left from his trooper’s haircut and a paunch that lapped his wide belt. He said, “Yes, ma’am”—as in, What is it that you want now? But he reluctantly put up a hand to halt the lift. I dodged past the traffic cones to hop up to the side door of the van, the place where, when the truck is upright, a ramp slides out and the horses are walked up to the stalls inside. It was a Dutch door, and the top half was pinned back against the outside wall. I straddled the corner of this opening in the beached vehicle and looked inside. The horse was a desperate, ugly sight, the kind that wakes you up in the night years later even though you have made your evening round at the barn and know all the horses are fine.
“Ma’am.” The younger trooper started toward me. “You’ll have to get down from there, ma’am. Out of the way.”
“He’s alive,” I said in despair.
“Not for long. Now you have to get down.”
“Bring your gun over here,” I countermanded.
“You have to shoot him.” But the trooper stayed where he was. I was talking to a wall, a familiar wall. It’s what divides people who have an understanding of animals from those who think an animal is just an object that moves, who are out of touch with the fact that animals think thoughts and feel feelings.
The trooper said, “Horse is not my property. Now if you don’t get down from there we may have to bring charges.”
“Maybe your buddy is braver than you,” I suggested, looking to his partner. “Are you? Can you get yourself over here with your gun—what are you two waiting for? A memo from the insurance company?”
The two of them glanced at each other, hesitating. The tow truck operator stepped down from the cab of the wrecker, bewildered.
“Look at you. Look at the two of you. Great big officers of the law. Packing your big, bad guns. And too scared to do what is right.” I put my hand out to the younger one. “Why don’t you lend me that gun?”
The older officer finally broke the standoff. “Ma’am? If you will step away from there and go over to my partner, I will take care of this.”
I dropped down from the truck and walked past the line of traffic cones. The blond trooper met me in front of his patrol car with a clipboard and started asking me more specifically who I was, where I lived, where I had just been, and, indirectly, why I felt the overturned van and the agonized horse were my business.
The older trooper conferred briefly with the tow truck operator and then climbed up on the side of the van. He unholstered his pistol, lay down so that his shoulders were over the door opening, and scooted sideways a little to get the right angle. He fired and then after a deliberate interval fired again and pushed himself to a standing position so that he could put the gun away.
He joined us at the patrol car and dictated a note to the trooper with the clipboard. “Three twenty-six, Curatola destroyed horse.” My relief was immense. I reached out, put my arms around his paunch and gave him a big squeeze. “Curatola,” I said by way of thanks.
His partner pried my arm away from Trooper Curatola. “You can’t do that, ma’am.”
Can’t? Cannot? Or was it shouldn’t? Should not? I turned back to my car thinking, What the hell is he going to do about it anyway? The horse had been spared further pain. That much I knew, but I was too upset to think as clearly about what had happened to the two people who had been taken away from the van. I needed to get home to Charlie so he could help me come to terms with what I had seen.
My two tiny terriers met me at the back door with unstoppable enthusiasm. Spit, the wire-haired black and tan with the ears that folded over, skittered sideways, and Polish, the slick-coated black-and-white feist with prick ears, bounced off his hind legs to give me a nose poke in the ribs. In my hurry, I barely acknowledged these friends. I found my large, genial husband in his study, ensconced in his chair with his long-haired cat in his lap—Greenspan making himself comfortable as usual—and without giving Charlie a chance to speak, I blurted out what had happened on the road.
When I came to the ending of the incident and my wrapping my arms around the trooper, Charlie said, “Truly inappropriate,” and came instantly upright, digging in his pocket for his cell phone. The cat leaped away from the chair. “We need to find out about Joe. I’ll try the hospital.”
Charlie was punching numbers into the little phone. He was devoted to the thing, and he, the least handy man I’ve ever met, would often hold up the cell phone and announce, “Best tool in the world. With this I can fix anything.” But the present problem might not yield so easily.
The hospital could give out no information. I used the telephone on the little table in the back hall to try Win Guthrie, but the phone rang repeatedly into empty space.
Charlie and I sat together glumly in the clutter of his study. Autumn sunshine fell through the tall window to shine on the stacks of magazines and newspapers that populated the carpet. The cat crept cautiously back into Charlie’s lap, and we considered the many possibilities, none of them reassuring.
“It was gruesome,” I said about the bay horse that had to be destroyed, “in the true sense of the word—and the smell. How will I ever shake that odor?”
Charlie only nodded. He said, “This could be terrible for Win.”
“You mean if Joe doesn’t make it?”
“He was like a father to Win, maybe more.”
He went silent, evidently working through thoughts about Joe and Win. The father thing was very big for Charlie. He had adored his own father, who died suddenly when Charlie was fourteen. After a few minutes, he said about his father’s early death, “In a way, I was lucky. Mine lived long enough to help launch me but not long enough to disappoint me.” Charlie knew, because I had told him, that the senior Guthrie had plotted a cautious, conservative course for his son’s life that included prep school and college and certainly would have included law school and a line on his firm’s stationery if Win hadn’t veered off into a career with horses—at which point Win’s dad shunned him. Joe was already on the scene, and he became a durable surrogate, a practical, tough-minded adviser. “Maybe not exactly like a father,” Charlie amended his first reaction, “but it will still hurt.”
Charlie Reidermann was my third husband, and because I had repeated one of my earlier mistakes, my marriage to him was my fourth. He was tall, as tall as I was, vaguely pear-shaped, and the crown of his head, which before I met him had been covered with tawny-brown hair, was a shiny spot. What had first attracted me to him, and still did, were Charlie’s eyes. They held everything, including me, with the warmest gaze blue eyes could ever be capable of. When he looked at me, I liked myself better. Charlie was more immediately huggable than Officer Curatola, certainly, and he was, at least on the surface, laid back. His relaxed, genial composure camouflaged an intense, acute mind and a tight privacy about himself.
The two of us together? So far, so good. With Charlie I seem to have found a kind of comfort I had never known with other men. Maybe because the two of us were quite different. He, for instance, was democrat—with a capital D as well as the lowercase one—the only Democrat or democrat I had become close to, and until I learned how to anticipate him, our first year brought a series of surprises. Soon after he moved in I was astonished to find a thank-you note from the ACLU on his desk. And then there was the fact that Charlie was not what anyone would call a horse person. He didn’t try to understand any part of a horse. But he wrote checks for the vet and the farrier without complaint or even comment, and he was unperturbed by the many mornings I left the warmth of our bed two hours before dawn to trailer a horse or two to a horse trial. Now I felt a vague guilt at being here with him in this room where we were so often content. Whatever his fate, Joe certainly didn’t have it so good.
We waited, and after a few minutes, he suggested, “Keep trying,” as if I might not. I phoned. I left messages.
About the time Charlie would have ordinarily been pouring scotch for me, the telephone on the little table in the back hall rang.
“Tink.” It was Win.
“I saw the truck,” I said to save him an explanation. “What about Joe?”
Joe Terrell didn’t suffer as long as the horse in the overturned van. That was the only positive information in Win’s account of Joe Terrell’s death: he didn’t suffer long. Joe was driving, and Win said Patty was riding in the back to keep the young horse calm, standing so that she could look out the open top of the Dutch door. She must have seen the smoke because she jumped out. The truck crashed down on the driver’s side, trapping Joe, and flame took over.
“How terrible! I’m so sorry, Win.” I said it although I knew that nothing I said would make any difference and that Win probably wasn’t really hearing it anyway. “I am so, so sorry.”
“Funeral is Thursday morning, Tink. Tell Charlie, will you?”
I didn’t wait for the funeral. I drove out to Win’s place the next day. I had made the twenty-mile drive quite often over the years—to look at horses and sometimes to buy them, to deliver horses I sold, to consult with Joe, and for a year or so when I was between husbands, to sleep with Win. During that period the new stables and indoor arena at the head of the drive hadn’t been there, just the white clapboard farmhouse and a traditional Pennsylvania bank barn. But today, under a show of brilliant orange maple leaves, the old house, which Win had inherited with the rest of the land, looked just as it had back then, almost vacant. Win had never bothered about curtains, so you could see straight through the rooms on the ground floor and you couldn’t help but notice their Spartan furnishings. Charlie thought the place was equivalent to a stable for humans, but I had always thought it was just waiting for someone to inhabit it. Maybe that’s why I had tried.
I parked in the turnaround in front of the stable. Win was nowhere in sight, but I found Patty McLaren squatting beside a horse cross-tied in the aisle that ran through the center of the stable. She was wrapping an exercise bandage on the horse’s front leg and didn’t look up until I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Hi, hon. How’s it going?”
She glanced at me quickly, secured the bandage with its Velcro strap, and stood up. She was a shy girl, a bit plumper than the typical no-hips event rider, with large dark eyes and flamboyant red hair that belied her shyness. “It’s going, Mrs. Elledge. It’s going.” The only people who didn’t call me Tink were the young people who had suffered under me as a Pony Club instructor on Saturday mornings. This was a volunteer position like being a Boy Scout leader, and in fact, Pony Club is like scouting for horse-crazy kids—the pony in the organization’s name was the British term for a horse of any size ridden by a child. I took the job because I had no child of my own and knew I probably never would have a child of my own, and I showed up on Saturdays as religiously as if I were going to Mass.
“You had a close call.”
She looked away from me to the horse’s leg that was next on her agenda. “Not as close as Joe,” she said quietly and held her hand up to me so I could feel the tremor. “I’m still shaking.”
“True,” I said about both of her statements. She may have escaped the burning truck, but she hadn’t left it.
“I feel like so—guilty, I guess. I mean, all I lost is my cell phone. I feel like I shouldn’t be here. Like I don’t deserve to be here.”
“We’re lucky you are.”
“I didn’t help him.” She bent over to retrieve another tightly rolled bandage and dabbed at the corner of her eye with it. “If he hadn’t thought someone needed to babysit the colt, I would have been in the cab with him. But I didn’t help him. I couldn’t. I saw the smoke coming out from under the truck. I think I got his attention because he slowed down. I thought he was going to pull off, and I just jumped.”
“That was the right thing to do, Patty. The only thing to do.”
“That’s what my dad said. But that’s what a dad would say because he wants you to feel better.”
“Charlie and I want that too.”
“My dad didn’t even yell at me for riding in the back of the van,” she continued, “and he always does that.”
I nodded because this argument was familiar to me. Charlie always took the same position about riding in a truck or trailer with the horses: “Why would any rational person allow herself to be locked inside a giant, rattling tin can with a ton or two of irrational animals?”
“How’s Win managing?”
She smiled. “Oh, you know, the way he always seems to manage. Stiff upper lip and ‘I know I must be upset, but there’s no way around the Brandywine—we’ve got the owners and all.’”
She had Win down perfectly.
“Is he here?”
“He’s over at the old barn with the insurance guys.”
The old barn had been Joe Terrell’s headquarters, and it held a surprising assortment of tools and machines, many of which he had used on my tack and some on bigger problems, like tractor implements. How many times had I gone to the old barn to ask for Joe’s help?
“Oh, right. The truck,” and I winced inwardly at the image and stink of its black remains. Then I put the question that had been troubling me since the trooper’s gun went off the day before. “What horse was that?”
I immediately regretted the crudeness of this, because the roll of bandage swept at her eyes again. I hated to cry myself, and I hated even more anything that made other people cry, especially if what made them cry was me.
“Quick Fix. He was a full brother to Secret Formula.”
The powerful long-legged black mare she named was Win’s candidate to contest the Brandywine Three-Day. My gray horse, Exit Laughing, would meet Secret Formula there.
“Win had an offer on him. Joe and I were on our way home from the prepurchase exam.”
“Patty, Joe wasn’t—” I made the flat-hand-thumb-out tippling gesture.
“Nope.” she said firmly. “Not a chance. That scared him too much.”
She had finished wrapping the horse’s legs and had moved on to saddling. The horse was a bright bay with bold white markings, and he had the inquisitive gleam in his eye that says to me, “lots of heart.”
“He looks promising,” I said to get on a more cheerful footing. “Is he?”
“I hope so,” she said tentatively. I knew she would be trying for the Olympics the next time the games rolled around. Toward that end, she had taken a working student position with Win, offering herself as a slave-groom who shoveled manure and groomed and cleaned tack and rode colts in exchange for Win’s coaching. It was hard work, but in all possibility, it could eventually pay off with a spot on a team that went to the Olympics.
“Well, my dad’s.” She acknowledged this help with a bit of reverence, and because Patty was at an age when it is easy to dismiss your parents as clueless or to simply forget you have them, I found her love for him quite sweet. In fact, I too owed her father, a gynecologist, a bit of reverence for his counsel earlier in my life. Throughout my marriage to Savage and my two marriages to Elledge, I visited Layton McLaren fairly regularly to try to get pregnant, but by the time I met Charlie I had long since given up. Admitting that there was no pregnancy in my future was the hardest part, and Layton McLaren helped me do that.
“And has the good doctor seen his horse go?”
“Not yet—” she brightened considerably, “but, did I tell you? He’s coming out here! It’s only a little Podunk horse trials down the road, but he says he’s coming.”
“I guess it’s been a while then?” I tried to remember the last time I’d seen Layton McLaren.
“Yeah, he usually doesn’t seem to want to come out this way. You know.”
I thought I did, and I let this go because I assumed that what was keeping the doctor out in Chicago was Patty’s mother, whom I had never actually met, and the bitterness of their divorce. Although she had lived in the house with Patty and McLaren, she had a fondness for liquor that kept her absent from them. Patty’s father had been the one to take his daughter to the stables and to school activities. I turned the chat back to the horse.
“Going pretty well for you?” I asked about the horse. “What does Win think of him?”
She smiled again about Win. “Well, you know, he never gets very excited.”
True. There wasn’t much that could raise that man’s pulse rate anymore. No monster cross-country obstacle, no big-money sale, not the most nubile, fresh young student. Win had turned fifty a year before I had, and we had both aged a lot. But Charlie said no one would ever accuse me of ripening the way Win had, of being hard to excite.
Patty shrugged. “‘I’ve got years, lots of years,’” she quoted Win.
With him, praise wasn’t spare change, and I had told Patty that when she asked my advice about going to work for him. He had earned his reputation for honesty, brutal honesty. He often didn’t allow himself time to think of a kind way of phrasing what he meant, and more than once I had been withered by his assessments. In the days we were together, I was more obsessively competitive—and hornier—and when we split, Win never actually named the occasion as a breakup. He said, “I can’t ride, Tink, if I can’t think. And somehow I can’t think with you and your horses around.” But of course I hadn’t mentioned my interlude with Win when Patty and I talked about the working student’s job, just the fact that Win’s standards were usually unattainable. She said, “I think I can deal with that—I’ve had you for a teacher, you know—and it could be very important for me.” It must have been, because she had kept the job nearly two years now.
I didn’t want to interfere with Win’s insurance powwow, and Patty was politely waiting to mount until I offered to leave. So I did.
She nodded, stepped up into the stirrup, and swung her leg over the young horse. He moved off in the edgy, tentative way that youngsters do, his black tail and her bright ponytail both swinging slowly, and I could see that just being on the horse was lifting her spirits. As the horse reached the corner of the barn, where they would turn and disappear toward the riding arena, Patty looked back over her shoulder.
“It’s easy,” she called.
“Just like opening a door.”
I realized she was quoting me. It was something I said often to children who were trying to steer their ponies with just the reins to show them how the pressure of their legs could take the work out of turning. I remembered her as a pudgy little redhead on a pudgy red pony that had a remarkable talent for walking in a determinedly straight line even with his nose cranked around to his flank. She had her heel dug into the pony. Her face was red. She was the shyest of my students, so I went over to ask what the problem was. She said very quietly, “This is not EASY, Mrs. Elledge.”
But now it was. She guided the horse around the corner of the barn with a little pressure of her leg and waved good-bye.
“Tell Win I came by, will you? Could you let him know I’m thinking about him?”
Copyright © 2013 by Holly Menino