Pony Girl

By

J. McGarrah

 

The school bus made its usual stop a block from her home. She ran the gauntlet of grabby boys from the back of the bus to the front. They were the same boys she'd ridden with since the third grade, but this autumn upon entering junior high, a change came over them. Their hands seemed more intimate, no more punches and pulls and pinches. The hands seemed to be groping for something deeper than her skin, something inside her, something you couldn’t explain exactly. The feeling was similar to watching a pan of water on the stove and waiting for it to boil. The boys seemed to sense it, seemed to want to drink from her and warm themselves. She didn’t understand the change, only that something new was occurring. Part of her felt ashamed that her body generated these urges in them, but another part of her enjoyed the power.

It was April. Her father should have been at Keeneland in the jock's room. He had two mounts on the day's race card. Her mother would normally have finished breakfast and lunch duties at the track kitchen and been propped in front of the TV watching some stupid soap opera to see who had fallen in and out of love from the episode the day before. 

            Inside the front door, she dropped her books on the scuffed table and, from force of habit, made the sign of the cross, touching the crucifix that hung above the lamp when she finished. Her gesture came more from superstition than the Catholic religion, though in Cajun culture they often merged into the same thing. Instantly, the room felt out of place. She tasted the fish sticks in the back of her throat that were served for lunch at St. Dominic's Junior High and a greasy fear filled her stomach. The TV was silent. The old beige couch centering the room, unoccupied. Cherie removed her school blazer and laid it across the wooden rocking chair where her father spent most of his evenings and called out. “Mom?” Mom, what are you doing?” The only answer came from the calico cat that drifted in and out of their home at leisure like most of Manny's friends. It scratched outside the screen door that had just closed. “Not now, Miss Marple. Go away.”

            Crossing the worn shag carpet, she noticed her mother's favorite picture, a still life print of Clematis Street in West Palm Beach where her mom wanted to live, had fallen off the wall. Along the floor, tiny shards of glass from the frame sparkled like sharp crystal snowflakes in the waning sunlight that streamed through the only window. Quickly, she closed the blinds. For some unknown reason, the light was making her sad. A moan rose from the linoleum floor in the kitchen, a slow leak of pain and anger. It sounded barely human and Cherie shivered in terror. Should she run out of the house? No, she couldn't leave her mother, wherever her mother was hiding. Had a burglar broken in and hurt her mom? What did they have worth stealing?  Nothing. What kind of person would hurt her mother and her, if he caught her, for a few dollars worth of furniture and her mother's shot glass collection from all the states? She wished Manny were home from the races. He could save them. The low hum of the moan took the form of a guttural language. “Chere...that you Chere?” Her fear turned to wonderment.

            Beneath the kitchen table, Manny lay sprawled out on his back and drooling. The smell of whiskey burned the air. Vomit covered his tee shirt. He could barely move.

            “Daddy.. daddy, what's wrong. Where's momma?”

            “Gone Chere. Gone out the door like the whore she is and always was.”

***

            It was just that simple, as natural as the sunrise and sunset. Cherie had gone from child to woman at the age of twelve before ever having the chance to experience the chaos of adolescence. Her father stayed drunk for a month. She missed as much school as possible without attracting the truant officer. She cleaned house and did the laundry, balanced what was left of the checking account and paid bills, shopped and cooked. Cherie cared for household matters that no twelve-year-old girl wants or is equipped to do. She did them because they had to be done and there was no one else to do them. The hate for her mother was still a long way off, like an avalanche coming down on her, picking up scree along the way. Eventually it would settle, burying her in the debris left from her mother’s actions, but she had no time to consider that in the present circumstance. Manny had still not spoken about the details of his wife's desertion and he mostly ignored his daughter. Rocking in his chair constantly, he stared through glazed ceramic eyes at a dead fly splattered on the yellow wall each day until he got drunk and pissed his pants. Cherie could not remove the stench of urine from the air in the cottage no matter how hard or how often she scrubbed the furniture and washed her father’s clothes. It was the single most important event involved in teaching Cherie that life was utterly and always out of control.

            During days of drunkenness and bitterness for Manny, there was only numbness and the need to bring her father back for her. When she succeeded and he struggled to a reluctant and wounded sobriety, he went back to the track and to work. It was almost like starting over. For her part, Cherie learned some things. The closer you become to someone, the weaker it makes you. Take what you can while you can from life because life takes from you, and always approach the word love with extreme caution. Those lessons helped her survive far better than a Catholic school education in a world where everyone had a hustle or an angle, the world of horse racing.

            Manny sobered up completely in two weeks. Like an old leather bridle, he was cracked and worn thin in several places, but still useful. His recovery made Cherie happy and freed her from being his mother and daughter at the same time.

 

By the time Cherie reached the grand of age of fourteen, she had grown almost completely independent.  She was a good hand with horses even at her young age. Wiry and tough her father said, she rode with a grace more animal than human. After her mother ran off, she didn’t remember a time in her life when there was anything but horses and males. Manny had agreed to show her all he knew about riding with the understanding that she finished high school in Lexington and kept her grades high doing so. She responded with passion and energy, spending hours on the practice track at Keeneland before school while her father galloped horses on the main track for various trainers hoping to pick up some mounts for the afternoon races. After school, while Manny was at the races, she rode the bus home and alternated her studies of algebra and literature with the breeding and racing statistics in Blood Horse magazine and the Daily Racing Form.

There wasn’t much time for extracurricular activities at school or a busy social life, not that Cherie minded very much. Classrooms lacked the freedom and open air of horse farms and race tracks. The boys in Catholic school were immature and boring. Unlike the jockeys and stable hands she was growing up around, they had no stories to tell, no adventures to remember. The girls clucked like old hens, worrying about shades of lipstick, designer jeans, and the newest pop divas. She was far more interested in what bit would help a horse who drifted out on the turns and what iodine based liniments mixed best with DMSO. Worst of all, school smelled like Xerox ink, Clearisil, and Brut aftershave mixed with sweat.

That didn't mean she lacked feminine wiles. Her athletic grace and blemish free complexion coupled with a flat stomach and the poise that came from associating with older men earned her a solid herd of male followers on the Catholic high school campus. She was not above exploiting their admiration when she made time to see a movie or go out to dinner. Cherie assumed no particular guilt for her physical gifts or the way she felt inclined to use them occasionally. She didn't always like herself but that was her mother’s fault. She accepted who she was and what she had to work with the same way she understood being a poorly bred horse with bad conformation didn't necessarily mean a lack of heart or class. A person made choices.

Cherie felt no particular pull of destiny. Manny never had the means to move away from their small cottage across from the training center and each room contained pieces of the mother who had deserted her. Claustrophobia and loneliness became her problems. Manny always said, “La vie n'est pas une prison, ma chere, et vous n'êtes pas dans l'isolement cellulaire.” 

In February, nine days from her fifteenth birthday, Cherie discovered her first true love. His name was Billy Bob. The sky was gray and close enough to touch. The familiar feeling of being trapped and alone, one that overwhelmed her in winter now that her mother was gone, had invaded the small living room on this Sunday in their cottage. She fired up the pot belly stove with a few lumps of coal to supplement the gas furnace and paced the floor incessantly. Her mind refused to focus on reading. The TV sputtered useless information about a coming snowstorm later in the week that would limit mobility further and increase her frustrations. Manny had been in a motel in Florence, Kentucky, for three days. He had several mounts on the night racing programs at Turfway Race Course, and while she knew he would be freezing his ass off, he would also be earning them much needed income. The training center across the road was at a level of very low activity. Most trainers shipped to warmer climates further south for the winter months. Those that didn’t were walking their horses around the ring inside the huge stabling area because the concrete wall around it served as a windbreak from the constant icy breeze. Consequently, Manny found little, or no, work galloping horses on the five furlong track. No work – no pay. Since Manny refused to let her get a job mucking stalls over there while she was in school, their only resource came from his riding a few broken down nags between December and March.

She worried about him a lot. The track was always either frozen hard or sticky with mud and either way, caused a lot of problems because the horses were cheaply bred claimers that usually had chronic physical problems anyway. There were at least one or two bad spills every winter meet up there. If a horse broke down under Manny, it could result in catastrophic injury. Race riding was a dangerous business at best, but at bush league tracks atop bad horses it was simply a matter of time before your number came up. Then, a rider could expect anything from a concussion to a collapsed lung or broken back. So far, his luck had held and as best as she could tell from the race results in the morning newspaper, last night Manny won a race and finished second in two more. His share of purse money coupled with his regular jockey’s fee meant he had earned at least two thousand dollars. That amount would get them through the rest of the month and into March when people began returning from the southern tracks in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Florida. Then, business would really pick up.

Around noon, she heard the pickup truck crunching ice and gravel as it rolled along the driveway that led to their front door. Manny was home. The front door flew open and a beaming Manny stepped inside. She gave him a quick hug but backed away at the acrid stench of cigarette smoke and bourbon that saturated his clothes and rose in waves from off his skin.

“You must have celebrated real good last night after the races. Are you still drunk?” She asked.

“Oh no, Chere. I had une petite des cheveux du chien ce peu je this morning with my breakfast just to get the old blood a circulating.”

            “That ‘hair of the dog that bit me’ excuse is wearing thin, papa. We agreed no drinking in the mornings, and telling me you did in French doesn’t make it any prettier.”

            His eyes were bloodshot and his face looked a little gray, almost the same tint as the sky outside. When he took off his leather jacket and hung it on the coat rack by the door, she noticed his hand trembled and the smile withered.

            “A man my age got to enjoy himself while he can, baby girl. I’m not getting any younger. Besides, Jerry Rasmussen was training that winner I rode last night. He always puts a hundred to win on his horses for me if they got a shot. So, guess what? We got us some extra this month.”

            Cherie wanted to be angry with her father, but he was home safe and happy for a change. When he pulled out a roll of twenty dollar bills bigger than his fist, she just shook her head and laughed.

            “Come on, I’ll make us some lunch,” she said.

            “No time. I think it’s getting close enough to your birthday for a special present, especially while I still got some of this money in my pocket.”

            “I don’t need anything special.”

            “You need something. It’s time you stopped hiding in this house. Summer’s coming up and you’ll be old enough start your own business soon. Can’t do that without a friend.”

            She had no idea what he was talking about, but when he told her to get her coat, she obeyed and followed him back out to the truck. They drove toward Versailles, Kentucky. She tried not to think but just enjoy the ride. Everywhere she looked for a break in the solid gray of the sky, a cloud that formed a familiar image, a slight hint of sunlight, small patches of green grass on the scuffed brown surface of the pastures they drove past. Even the miles and miles of white wooden fences that marked the boundaries on the great Lexington breeding farms were the dreary color of dirty chalk.

She settled into the truck seat and disappeared into impossible possibilities to pass the time on the thirty mile ride. Considering whether the leafless trees were dancing along the shoulder of the roads as they turned from Paris Pike onto New Circle and again onto Highway 60, she avoided useless small talk with Manny. Her thoughts drowned out a litany of excuses about why he was still drinking so much. Cherie didn’t even feel curious about her special present. Knowing her father, it would be a doll or something a ten-year-old could use. But, the trees, the trees roused her interest, especially when the wind whipped them into a frenzy. It blew in one direction, from east to west. The dark branches didn’t bend in its path. They shimmied, jiggled, strutted, twirled, and pirouetted very much like the broomsticks in Fantasia. Her mother had taken her to see that movie for her sixth birthday. It was a special present.

Even in their dead time, a joy Cherie could not quite reach seemed present in their movements. The wind had no control over them. It provided them with energy, with a life of their own, and they moved according to their own choices. Did this mean they understood what it meant to be alive, to control the circumstances that allowed them to exist? Did they have the free will Sister Clarisse, her philosophy teacher in high school, said belonged only to humans and was the source of evil, the ability to live without God like Cherie’s own mother had exercised when she ran off to Florida? Of course not. But, it was difficult not to sense a freedom in those shivering, barren branches that made it seem like the trees were happy just being trees. Why wasn’t her mother happy just being her mother?

She sat up in her seat as Manny turned onto a winding gravel lane that led back through a stand of willow trees and ended at a two story frame house badly in need of paint. Three small children played in the front yard with a huge furry mutt that looked part retriever and part St. Bernard.

“You recognize this place, Chere? You used to play in that barn when you were little and me and your momma would visit Larry and Susie.”

“This is the Musgrove farm,” she answered. Why are we here?”

“You’ll see in a minute.” Manny blew the horn on the old truck twice and a short, round man emerged slowly from the barn, pitchfork in hand. His bright red hair and beard were tangled and he wore a dirty set of denim coveralls and some rubber boots. His disheveled appearance made Cherie smile. He waved and leaned the fork against the barn wall, walking toward them with confident strides. Manny and Cherie stepped out of the truck. The dog gave them a sideways glance, but the children, rolling around on the frozen ground and laughing, never acknowledged the presence of strangers. That’s a sign of a happy and unafraid home thought Cherie, and for a moment felt an empty spot in her stomach as if the truck had just sped over a slight hill.

“Manny, Manny. Long time no see. How’s it hanging my little Cajun friend.”

“Long and strong, mon amie.” Manny spoke loudly to Larry Musgrove, who took Manny’s right hand in both of his and pumped his arm vigorously. Larry looked at Cherie and shook his head with an approving nod as he slowly appraised her from top to bottom. She stared at her scuffed cowboy boots self-consciously.

“Hey, I was sorry to hear about Sandra. Susie and I thought the world of her. I guess you never know what people are thinking.”

“She’s dead to me, Larry. But, no talk of her. Let’s get on with it before this little girl explodes.”

“Yeah, I want to see my special present,” said Cherie. “What is it? A red wheelbarrow.”

“Oh, I think you’ll approve. You’re obviously a young woman now and ready to start thinking about a career on the track if you love horses as much as your daddy seems to believe you do,” Larry said and turned toward the barn beyond the house motioning with his stubby paw for them to follow.

The barn was dusty inside and warm from the stacks of straw in the loft. There were several bales of timothy and clover hay inside one of five stalls, a couple of bridles hanging from nails, a wheel barrow half full of muck and various implements that Cherie could not identify. Maybe Larry collected antique farm tools. The scent of clover tangled with the smell of manure and molasses and old leather. New wood gave off its own particular aroma where some boards had been replaced in one of the stalls. The smells in the air comforted her. The stalls were empty except for the last one. She heard a weak whinny and the rustling of straw from it. They all walked toward it and Cherie began to feel slightly anxious, hoping that what she had been wanting for two years awaited her at the back of the barn.

As she peeked around the corner, her excitement dissipated into a vague disappointment. What she had been wanting for a long time was a solid, young Quarter horse, well broken and with a mild temperament. Since learning to ride, her hope had always been to start a pony business of her own. Pony girls made good money warming up and leading thoroughbreds to the starting gate before races. With Manny’s contacts it would be easy to pick up extra cash during training hours in the mornings, too. Lots of trainers wanted to get their horses exercised without the weight burden of a rider, especially if those horses had chronic leg problems. It meant a lot to Cherie to be able to earn a living on her own. To make that possible, she needed the right pony. What she saw in Larry Musgrove’s stall certainly didn’t match her expectations. 

 Musgrove moved into the stall and hooked a lead shank on the halter of a stocky, sickle-hocked, Appaloosa horse that he could never sell at auction. The horse seemed slow in the head and looked wormy and was already past his best years at the age of six. A snowflake white pattern swirled into his bay coat, especially over the withers and hips, but his color was dull from the worms in his digestive tract that Cherie knew he must have. Musgrove tried to convince her that the pony horse was well mannered and easily handled, but everyone knew Appaloosas were silly acting and liable to do crazy things like prop or whirl at random times. Maybe that contrary behavior was bred into them by the Nez Pierce tribe as a way to get even with the white man who stole the breed.

Manny seemed so happy for her that she hid the regret that momentarily filled her. They would have to board and feed this scrawny thing with extra money they didn’t have. She would have to spend time nursing it rather than earning money with it and who knew if it would ever be strong and disciplined enough to handle a fractious thoroughbred in a post parade. Still, her father didn’t deserve to have his feelings hurt by another woman. That would surely create some of that Catholic guilt she hated.

“Do you like him, Chere?” asked Manny.

“He don’t look like much now, but he’ll lose that shaggy coat and put on some weight in the spring. He’s got some Quarter Horse in him and since I gelded him, his temperament’s been real good. Just make sure the vet worms him. I got an old western saddle and a bridle I’ll throw in the pot, too, since your dad’s a good friend,” Larry said and handed her the lead strap.

Cherie walked the horse up and down the length of the barn, and, though he seemed reticent, trotted him a little ways. His conformation wasn’t the best in the back end where the lower portion of his legs curved under his rear end like sickle blades instead of being directly vertical to the ground. Surprisingly, he moved with a fluid grace that almost reminded Cherie of running water. When they stopped jogging, the pony nuzzled her under the arm, a gesture both kind and intimate as if to say “we need each other.” Cherie almost began crying. She ran her hand down both front legs and felt the knee joints for chips, the shins for splints, and the ankles for warm spots where the suspensory ligaments split over the fetlocks. Everything was tight. She would make do. Besides, the little horse had touched her with kindness, something no human had done for years.

Musgrove let Manny have the pony for three hundred dollars. They borrowed his two-horse trailer and carried it back to Lexington. Manny said that a little tender care and attention from the right person would bring out a potential he saw in the pony's eyes. Cherie named him Billy Bob, after a clown she fell in love with at the Shrine circus when she was a child.  Once settled in an empty stall at the training center across from their home, Billy Bob did in fact begin to thrive. Manny got the local veterinarian to tube worm him and keep his health up for free as long as Manny exercised the vet’s own horse a couple of times a week. Will Costas, the blacksmith, trimmed Billy Bob’s hooves and shod him once every five or six weeks when he made his rounds. To pay for his services, Cherie helped him by holding horses while he worked on them and carting his equipment around.

They developed their skills together, rider and pony, working before school in the mornings and for hours every day through the summer. She had no real friends from school and ignored the boys that called her for dates mostly, unless one suggested some place she really wanted to go or something she really wanted to do. Even in those cases, she kept her defenses up. Oh, she experimented and played around physically. The attention was gratifying, but no one boy could keep her emotional attention for long. If Cherie had anything important that needed to be said, she whispered it to Billy Bob. He was her only attachment other than Manny, and in that relationship, she often felt more like the adult. Once the summer of her sixteenth year arrived, she started her own pony business at the training center with Billy Bob. She had grown to like him better than most people. He never judged her and he never argued.

***

Business boomed right from the start. Whatever god controlled horse racing and the luck that determined who flourished and who ended up crushed, well, that god blessed Cherie. It didn’t hurt that she had blossomed into a beautiful young woman, and she knew it. The men who ran the training stables enjoyed her presence and her professionalism. She felt her power and used it. She rode better than many of the males in the same business and Billy Bob had developed into a strong, capable pony. He seemed to have a sense of what Cherie wanted him to do on the track before she even asked him with the reins. None of the thoroughbreds bullied him. If one nipped at his neck, he ignored it. If one pulled away, he went with it until it stopped pulling. If one bumped his shoulder, he dropped that shoulder and bumped back. Even his temperament as an Appaloosa proved invaluable to her when dealing with a fractious race horse. There was plenty of work for a freelance pony girl.

Within the first year Cherie saved enough money to buy a used camper and a two-horse trailer. She hauled her home from city to city. It was plenty big enough for her with a bed, a bath, and a kitchen. Most tracks had campgrounds nearby that offered parking, electrical hook ups and sewage disposal for about thirty dollars a month. Hell, Churchill Downs had one owned by an old lady right across the street from the back gate. Cherie walked to work every morning. It was the first time she and Manny had been separated, but she needed the independence and Manny seemed to be surviving all right. He stayed sober long enough and rode races well enough to keep himself employed.

The first four years on the road almost erased the bad memories for Cherie. Her mother was a vague face in from the past, like a criminal distant relative that no one wanted to talk about. There had been no contact other than a couple of postcards from Florida and one birthday card. So, Cherie’s young mind began to push her childhood memories from the conscious to the unconscious. She likened it to packing away heavy, oppressive winter clothing in the spring. Traveling helped eliminate Cherie’s claustrophobic insecurity also. It was hard to feel trapped when you moved from one place to another every few weeks. She had no complaints about being uprooted from Lexington. The gypsy life style gave her the freedom to experiment sexually as well. She involved herself with several young men without fear of making any commitments. When race meets ended, she went one way and they went another. No one got hurt. In some ways Cherie felt like a long-distance runner who competes in each race only against herself. The goal was to better her own time, or in this case her own pleasure. She felt no concern for her partners and no guilt for that selfishness, learning quickly that men wasted little time satisfying their own needs. If she didn’t consider hers no one else would. That was life. Still, a vague emptiness she couldn’t really explain made her sad sometimes.

            Once, she almost fell in love at the Oaklawn Park race meet with a young man who was a genuine rodeo bull rider, a cowboy of the first order, born and raised on a ranch in Texarkana. In her brief life, it had been the only time that the magic she wished for seemed real. Jason Weber took some time off the rodeo circuit and came to Hot Springs with his older brother Jinx Weber, who operated a huge public racing stable with thirty head of thoroughbreds. The Webers were a close family and when Jinx found himself shorthanded for the meet, Jason agreed to pitch in.

            Cheri met Jason when his brother contracted her to pony horses to the post on their race

days. Jason was not handsome in a way she imagined cowboys would be. He wasn't tall or tanned like the dark leather of the chaps he wore for riding every morning. He had a thin, pasty face with an aquiline nose and a wide mouth that upturned constantly in a smile. His whole body projected an uneven kind of symmetry that made him seem out of balance when he walked. He might have passed for a circus clown, but she loved clowns. And, the boy could ride. Put him on a rough horse, the horse got more than it bargained for. Jason was fearless.

            But that wasn't all of Jason. When they made love, his calloused hands roamed over her with respect and gentleness. When he entered her, Jason stayed with her till they both finished. Sometimes just seeing him across the race track made her wet and electric. He opened the truck door for her when they took a drive, held her hand in public, and brought her flowers. Things no one had ever done for Cherie. Things that would be laughed at in the changing world outside the isolated racetrack. Things that made her feel special. They ate the best barbecue in the south at Stumpy's. They toured bath house row in downtown Hot Springs where famous people used to come and soak in tubs of hot mineral water to cure infirmities. Sometimes, her feelings for Jason overwhelmed her and the possibility of letting go completely frightened her.

She tried to hold back, but struggled uselessly as the contradiction of him cried out for more and more exploration. He had a gentle soul yet made a living from violence, riding vicious bulls and breaking up his body. He'd had fifteen bone fractures in various places and he was only twenty-eight years old. At the same time, the guy defined a romantic cliché, a gentleman cowboy who belonged in another era. He treated her like a lady. The odd thing was, she had grown up independent and fierce and capable. She made a hard living in a man's world. Yet, in a place beyond rational thought, somewhere in the deepest recesses of her mind, Cherie felt mesmerized by Jason's behavior.

            When the race meet ended that April, she packed up and journeyed back to Kentucky reluctantly where most of her business existed. The Webers went west to Omaha. She saw Jason one more time. Had the reason for his disappearance from her life been betrayal, Cherie could have accepted it. Her faith in any human relationship was tenuous at best. She expected the worst behavior from people she thought the most of, especially after putting up with her mother and father. But that wasn’t what happened. Jason got tossed from a bull at some little fairgrounds rodeo around Brownsville and broke his back on the Fourth of July that very year. Jinx called her from the hospital and let her know his baby brother would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. She wanted to speak with Jason, but Jason refused no matter how much she pleaded and begged with his brother on the phone.

            Never one to quit anything unless it was on her terms, Cherie arranged for her pony business, which was in full swing for the summer, to be covered by friends and packed her truck for the drive to Texas. Manny tried to talk her out of it over the phone. She sensed the concern in his voice. He had known riders who had been broken before and he did not want her saddled with the care of a cripple for the rest of her life. Cherie got angry and reminded him that she had been caring for a cripple ever since her mother left. She could tell that hurt Manny’s feelings by his silence. About four hours into the long drive, she regretted her comment. But, sometimes words can never be taken back.

            Exhausted by hours of bone-jarring in a pickup truck, drained by unrelenting heat that seemed unaffected by daylight or darkness, goaded onward by a sense of dread that would not dissipate even in the bright dawn and the Gulf Coast breeze, Cherie maneuvered her way between rows of stately palm trees and past ever-blooming bougainvilleas on the streets. If not for the boundary of the Rio Grande and a few signs in English, she could have been lost in Matamoros, Mexico, instead of Brownsville, Texas. Each was visible from the other. The cities were two sides of the same coin, dusty border crossings that blended tequila and fried chicken,

Spanish and English, white and brown, the equality of poverty and a wealth of racism. Why would anybody come here for any reason, even a rodeo? This question dominated her consciousness as she pulled into the parking lot of Mercy Hospital, a huge stone and adobe mess of Gothic and Moorish designs melted together. It depressed her before she even entered the lobby, but that wasn’t saying much. Nothing could have dispelled the swelling of doubt and anxiety in her chest, but especially nothing called a hospital.

            “Jason Weber’s room, please,” she said to a stoic nurse behind a desk.

            “Are you family?”

            “No ma’am, but I’ve driven all day and all night to get here and see him.”

            “Family only. He’s in a lot of pain and pretty doped up.”

            Cherie’s eyes began to well with tears, a feat that astonished her. She had not cried when her mother left or any of the many nights Manny came home drunk and broke. She would not give a stranger the satisfaction of seeing her do it now. She averted the woman’s gaze.

            “Please, I won’t stay long. It’s very important,” said Cherie.

            The nurse rolled her eyes and gestured around a waiting area. Each straight-backed chair showed signs of wear. The vinyl seats cracked and the chrome legs spotted with rust. The walls oozed a pus-colored yellow paint dotted with smashed flies and two or three bland landscape reproductions of cactus and oceans. Various magazines cluttered the lamp tables. Some lay open, wrinkled and torn, while others looked as if they might never be read. A sign in Spanish and English hung above the head of the room’s only occupant, a fat, middle-aged Mexican man wearing an open-front, black polyester jacket with decorative metal on sleeves. A black sombrero and a pair of red and yellow maracas rested on the chair beside him. The sign read – Hospital, Quiet Please! and ¡Hospital, Pleaese Reservado! – reminding Cherie that pain spoke all languages equally. An air-conditoner thumped on somewhere and the stench of isopropyl alcohol and iodine floated through on its cool breeze.

            “I come in here six days a week and most of the time I see people like that mariachi singer over there waiting for his guitar player who’s in the emergency room because some drunk didn’t like a song and threw a beer bottle into his head. This out of date and wretched hospital will soon be closed down and replaced by a much better one run by the Baptist church. I’d like to work there. Why should I break the rules for you?” The nurse asked.

            “Because you’re a good person and you know I need to see Jason more than anything else in the world right now.”

            The nurse’s eyes glazed over for an instant.

            “I was young and in love, once.”

            “What happened?” Cherie asked.

            “I got married to him. He’s in room 124 alone. Don’t be shocked at what you see and if a doctor or anyone stops you, tell them you’re his sister. Ten minutes, that’s all.”

            “Thank you. I won’t forget your kindness.’

            “I’m not really sure I’m doing you a favor,” said the nurse as Cherie walked along the empty corridor toward room 124.

            She knocked lightly on the partially closed door, but was not prepared for what waited behind it as she pushed it open. The stink of sweat and some cheap disinfectant that hung in the air confused the scent of lilacs and carnations standing in a vase on a small table. Sunlight slipped between the rows of half-opened venetian blinds across the only window casting small patches of brightness on the shadowed bed sheet. Some kind of steel and chrome contraption was strapped around Jason holding him completely immobile. His head, in a leather harness, peeked from under the sheets. She could barely see his face in the half-dark, half-sunlit, room but could tell his eyes were closed and he had no knowledge of her presence. Was he dead? The blanched face gave no clue. Panic seized her. As if had stepped on a live wire, her knees buckled. She twitched and then began to shiver. The constant hum of the air conditioner, the frigid air, and the dripping of a faulty faucet into a stainless steel sink on the wall all hit her at once. Every movement of her arms and legs seemed to be made against a brilliant white backdrop by someone outside her body. She felt clammy and numb. A memory, ragged and awful, of Manny’s vomit the day her mother left clawed its way into her head through her nose and nested in her sinus cavities. Cherie’s head ached with pain and fear. Then she noticed the sheet over Jason’s chest rise and fall slightly. No, he wasn’t dead, just wasting away alone in a place she would never see on a road she could never travel.

A siren howled outside in the parking lot and its keening drove her backward from the room. She ran. The nurses and patients milled around the hallway now as the morning progressed from the sleeping world of joyful dreams to the waking monotony of diseased life. A few raised their heads as she rattled past but without much concern for anything except some inward misery that held them captive. She startled the nurse at the front desk into shouting “Hey” but not into moving beyond the barrier that separated her from the sick world. Cherie ran. She pushed open the glass doors and crashed into the light and heat of the Texas morning. The sky was cloudless and blue and, if it were possible for her to fly, she would have spread her arms and rose into the breathless heavens. She felt lost, a child in the woods with no way home. Where had she left the truck? Where was she going? Where had she been? She ran some more, confused by the parking lot that was nearly empty on her arrival and was now nearly full of strangely colored autos and trucks.

When she found hers, finally, Cherie opened the door. A jet of hot air rushed against her face and choked her. She sobbed and crawled inside. With the windows raised to block out the sounds of life around her, she gunned the engine and roared away from Mercy Hospital, sweating profusely to hide the tears. A hundred miles from Brownsville, Cherie stopped for gasoline and a bottle of Cuervo Gold tequila.