Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Perro Loco

I’ll never admit it to my Dad, but one of my favorite parts of being at home is the “obligation” to go see our horses train on Saturday mornings.  I’ve always been a morning person, though, so I only act like it’s a burden to wake up early on a weekend.  (I think Mom and Dad have caught on.)  But it’s been a few months since I’ve taken the windy road out to Skylight Training Center, so I wasn’t going to miss it on my first Saturday back.

People may have their preconceived notions, but there are dozens of things I love about Kentucky, many of which make an appearance on the ride to the training center.  Just this morning, Dad and I saw a field full of Thoroughbred babies and their mothers — basking in the sun or chasing each other around in circles.  We witnessed part of a road bike race and imagined what the people burning it up the hills of Sleepy Hollow were thinking: “I got this, I got this,” or “Why am I here? Why am I here?”  We saw a four-horse buggy trotting around a field of the greenest grass in the country — despite our reputation for “bluegrass,” I’ve always marveled at the deep emerald of Kentucky’s rolling hills.  Open fields and old southern houses, black barns with red accented windows, lush pastures linking farm after farm: my old Kentucky home.

I haven’t yet mentioned that we always bring Rufio on our Saturday visits.  (I mean, “always” since we got him as a puppy a year ago.)  He’s a real star at the barn and makes fast friends with most of the horses as well as their handlers.  And he’s always on his best behavior, until he sees the barn mascot, a tiny little rooster that prances around like he owns the place and by now isn’t afraid to walk right in front of Rufio, knowing full well he is on a leash.

Today Rufio made a new friend.  One of the grooms had brought his son over to the farm on his day off and little Carlos Mario came cautiously up to Rufus to say hi.  “This dog must eat too much,” he said in Spanish. “He’s too big!”  My dad and I laughed.  The boy was just at eye-level with Rufio, and I didn’t blame him for being a little wary at first.  “He won’t hurt you,” I said in English, frustrated that I didn’t know how to reassure him.  I squatted down and started petting the dog to show he was friendly.  Carlos said, something about a “caballo” and Dad laughed and said, “He is like a horse, for you!”

We watched the horses train, and I kept my eye especially on Lily, our little home-bred chestnut filly with enough charisma to take on the big horses.  She hasn’t raced yet, but we are eagerly anticipating her debut!

Lily, left

Carlos stayed near, growing more confident around Rufio as the morning passed.  Dad pointed out the strip of hair that grows in the wrong direction on his back (Rufus is a Rhodesian Ridgeback) and, pointing, asked Carlos’ dad, “Como se dice ‘Ridgeback?” Before he could respond, Carlos pointed to the ridge and said matter-of-factly, “pelo” — hair.  All of us laughed.

When it was time to go, I said the only other word I know in Spanish — Adios — to Carlos Mario and his father.  Heading toward the car, we waved over our shoulders.  Standing beside the barn, leaning against his daddy’s legs, Carlos yelled, “Adios Perro Loco!”  Obviously a dog that big had to have eaten too much.

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About books and covers and thoughts on a plane

Yesterday I met Jan at 2:30 a.m.  Twenty minutes outside of campus on a little country road — just when I was nodding off, despite the rattle of the airport shuttle — Dick pulled to a stop and let her in.  The smell of cigarettes and peppermint and alcohol filled the van.  Along with a voice loud enough to confirm that I would not be getting any sleep.  She plopped down right next to me, even though all the other seats were open, and as I gave her a polite, if cold and exhausted nod, she announced to all the world that, “I’m afraid of planes, and yes, I’ve been drinking.”

Great.

I think I grunted to break the silence.  She continued, saying she hadn’t slept for days and she didn’t know why she had let herself be talked into taking this trip to Florida and  if this was her day to go, there was no stopping it anyway.

I wanted to say that there was a better chance that we’d die on the way to the airport.  That Dick might very well fall asleep at the wheel at this hour.  But I held back, wondering what kind of a ride it might be if I did say it.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’ll be okay.”

“Are you in college?” she asked.

“Just finished.”

“My daughter’s in school in Cambridge — not Harvard, but close. Lesley University. She’s a good student.  And tomorrow’s her last day of sophomore year.”

I nodded. Dick drove.

“You far away from home?” She asked. “Yes,” I said. “Flying home today.”

“Miss your Mom?”

“Yes, but I talk to her every day, except when she is out of the country working, and then I miss her a lot.”

“My daughter and I were best friends when she was growing up,” Jan smiled.  “We didn’t have much money, but we’d have fun anyway.  We went into Boston once on the train and we couldn’t afford the tour, so I bought a $2.00 map and we walked the Freedom Trail and I read about all the sites out loud and we had fun.”

I turned my head and smiled a little, thinking of my visit to Boston last week. “It’s true that you don’t need money to have fun there,” I said.  “Did you know the ferry from Long Wharf to the Navy Shipyard and Old Ironsides is only $1.70?”

“You talk to your mom every day?” she asked.

“Sometimes twice a day,” I rolled my eyes. “Just yesterday I told her she had to stop calling me so much.”

For the first time since getting in the van, Jan was silent.  Even in the dark I could see her eyes glistening. I heard her swallow hard. “I haven’t talked to my daughter in weeks.”

I swept my hand across her shoulder quickly — only for as long as it took me to say, “College is a tough time. She’ll come around.”

She leaned forward, not resisting my touch, but a little uncomfortable for a moment. We were strangers. She slid her fingers roughly under her eyes.  “Sometimes I hear about what she’s up to through the grapevine,” she tried to recover composure.  “But she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

I thought about how embarrassed I had been for her when she had climbed into the van, smelling of alcohol and bellowing that she was afraid of planes.  I imagined her daughter going off to college in Cambridge and morphing from the young girl who had enjoyed her mother’s amateur tours of the city to a young woman who was mortified by this overweight, high school educated Chatty Cathy of a mom.  I could see it.

I wondered if it was the distance between them that kept her daughter from even imagining the pain I saw so obviously in her mother’s eyes.

“She’ll be home for summer soon,” I said, remembering that tomorrow would be her last day of school.  But I knew at once that my words were no comfort.

“She’s not coming home this summer,” Jan said, her saddened voice becoming forcibly detached. “She’s living with her boyfriend. I still support her. I still send her all the money I have left over after the bills are paid and I’ve bought food for Mom and my disabled brother. I still work two jobs — every hour — for her. But she’ll be living with him, and that money will go to buy pot.”

I wanted to say, “Why don’t you cut her off?! Why don’t you make her see that it’s not so easy?”  I was angry.  But I looked at her and knew that at the moment this was her only connection to her daughter.  If she cut her off, her daughter might cut her off.  I saw that it was not so easy.

“So you are going to Florida alone?” I asked.

“To visit a friend — to help a friend,” She replied.  “She’s had some bad luck lately and had to have one of her legs amputated and I am going to go help her get to therapy and cook and adjust.”

Oh.

“It’s my first vacation in three years and I am so excited!” She exclaimed, a burst of her original energy returning. (It was now 3:30.)

It didn’t sound like much of a vacation at all.

As we entered the city, Alanis Morisette came on the radio. I like this song. “Oh no! Dick!” Jan shouted, startling me.  She was waving her hands at the radio. “We have to change the station! We have to change the station!” He did.

I kid you not, the song was “Ironic” — and I had forgotten about the second verse.

I laughed at this latest outburst, fully awake now.  “You’re going to be fine,” I smiled, as if we were friends. “You know the statistics.”

Later, on the plane, I experienced the steadiest and most prolonged turbulence I had ever remembered, all the way to Chicago.  I thought a lot about Jan.  I envisioned her making a real ruckus if her flight was anything like mine.  I was grateful she and I had shared the morning shuttle, even if it had cost me sleep.  Was it coincidence that Mother’s Day had just passed?  Or that my mom’s birthday had been the day before, and I had scarcely acknowledged it because of my Chaucer exam?

Please God, I prayed, let Jan have a smooth flight.

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We’ve got to stop meeting like this.

On Tuesday I went to my last class as an undergraduate.  It’s been one of my favorite classes, too — with my hands down favorite professor.  I watched the clock, not hurrying the minutes as I usually do, but wishing them to slow down as I relished the notes I wrote in the margins of The Canterbury Tales and contemplated my connection to the Pilgrims on the outskirts of Canterbury: a turning point, an ending point.  A new beginning.

Professor K ended his lecture early — something he never does — and I wanted to tell him to make something up: one last point, one last note.  But he didn’t.  Five minutes early he said simply, “Well, that’s all I’ve got.”  He paused, looking at the room sprinkled with seniors who must have been giving him that look.  He looked melancholy for a moment too, before a slight grin brightened his face.  “Pardon my joke,” he said, “but we’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

I wrote it down in my book.

It was probably  the least profound thing Prof K has ever said, but it almost brought tears to my eyes.  Would refusing to leave the classroom mean I could stay a student forever?

Prof K is one of those professors you keep around. He’s got a white beard and eyes that smile and he always wears perfectly pressed blue oxfords. In 2007, I took his “Thinking, Seeing, and Believing” class and was inspired by concepts like “The Always Already” and the mysteries of religion in art.  Philosophy, literature, religion came together in his class and I was hooked.  He’s one of those guys that some people might find too dry because he stands up and lectures and uses words we have to Google after class, but for me, Professor K embodies my undergraduate experience.

Today is Prof K’s birthday.

I didn’t know it, and neither did Amy (his other advisee) before he took us out to lunch at Joey’s to celebrate the completion of our senior theses.  It came up in conversation when we were talking about his daughter-in-law: she had called this morning and oh, by the way it was his birthday.  It was just like him to be discreet but to let us know just the same.  I’ve got to remember to write him a card next year…

Amy has worked with Prof K on a thesis about Robert Frost’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s nature poetry.  So, after lunch we visited Elizabeth’s grave site at Hope Cemetery.  It had been raining when we were in the restaurant, but by the time we left the sky had cleared and that crisp, clean smell filled the air.  It was so “May” : a cool wind, a dark sky to the west and bright puffy clouds to the east, a landscape refreshed.  The cemetery was beautiful, with huge oaks and maples rustling in the wind.  As we drove in we were talking about the beauty of the Berkshires, but for once Worcester seemed beautiful to me.  Prof K parked the car and we walked off the path a ways to the unassuming grave site Elizabeth shares with her parents.

“This is surreal,” said Amy.

“I know,” said Prof K. “There’s mystery in being close to someone’s remains.”

I looked around, considering the ritual of burying our dead.  Why do we  feel such an attachment, a responsibility even, to this rite?  Is it for the dead, really, or for us, the living?

I thought of my little brother, still –shamefully?– unburied. “Would he have wanted to be in a cemetery?” my dad asked me once.

“I don’t know! Who talks to their siblings about what they would want if they were dead?” I snapped.

“Who talks to their sons…?” He responded.

The wind blew my hair in my face and I turned back around, studying the rude stone, preferring it to the glossy, polished granite I’ve seen at more modern grave sites.

My brother would want to be out here, under a tree, in a beautiful place like this.  Not that he would have ever talked about it with me, at this point in our lives at least.  He would want it not for himself, but because he loved his family, his friends, people in general.  He would want them to be able to come and visit, if only for their own comfort. If only for the surreal mystery of being with him in that small way.

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