Rich used to say he wished he knew how to impress me. I’d tell him, “Do something.” This spring he finally took action in a big way and gave me the second saddest day of my life.
Early in our marriage I’d get on Rich for being all talk. That was because I felt blameful of that very thing. I prattled on and on about having a baby but I couldn’t get pregnant. It wasn’t Rich’s fault, though a low sperm count figured in. I went to bed every month with periods that lasted ten days and gave me horrible cramps. The doctor said, “Dana, these hard periods make it tough to get a child underway.” If either of us had been married to somebody else it might have been different—or maybe not.
My mother didn’t help by pointing out that my sister got pregnant kissing through the fence. Lynne cranked out one after another until she got to three, then she made Nick get a vasectomy. Her ease in having babies and my mother’s willingness to mention it put a distance between me and them that lasted a long time.
The state wouldn’t let Rich and me adopt until we got to be 30. We had to prove we couldn’t make a kid on our own.
I worked at the flower shop in Blackfoot, 20 miles from our place in Gulch. Wendy, my boss, watched over my shoulder and rearranged my arrangements. Rich worked at the farm supply store and helped his dad, Lane, with the cows. Lane had given Rich and me half the herd but we ran them together for convenience. Lane kept the herd on his place in winter; in summer Rich took the cows to a government grazing allotment and checked on them every day.
We didn’t see each other much. I got home tired and all I wanted to do was get out on Maggie, my filly. She was two and green, but even then, the most dependable horse I’d ever had. A path beside the creek had almost no rodent holes. I’d let her all the way out there. Running beside the water with the willows flying past, I got the feeling there was something bigger than me.
The rest of the time, things didn’t have much flavor. Rich didn’t ask for much—I decided whether we’d have sex or supper. He didn’t contribute much, either, in ideas or conversation.
The first time Rich held our daughter I said to him, “Can you love her like your own?” He said, “Are they supposed to be this small?”
I named our baby Blithe because she’d been born on Sunday. The poem says “The child born on the Sabbath day is bonny and blithe and good and gay.” Bonnie was too common to suit me. If it had been 20 years earlier I might have named her Gay.
She had wide blue eyes like a Siamese.
I kept my job in Blackfoot, maneuvering the winding road from Gulch twice a day. From November on the road stayed slick and snowy. I took Blithe to a day care place I’d heard good things about, but a few months into it I arrived one day to pick her up and the attendant told me someone would get her from the back. When I said, “I’ll go get her myself,” the attendant reached over and pushed a buzzer. Even Rich didn’t like the sound of that. I might have taken Blithe back there until I found another place for her, but I got into it with the owner and she ordered me off the place.
I found a woman who watched kids in her home. I thought from the first she had too many. Blithe got a diaper rash and starting fussing at night.
About that time Rich and his dad got serious about keeping a purebred herd. That meant a lot more paperwork. Lane still held down a job in town and it was a lot of trouble for him to feed cows before and after work, especially during storms, so we moved the cows to our place and I took over feeding and keeping up the registrations.
“Mommy’s going to be home with you now,” I told Blithe. Her diaper rash cleared up.
I don’t suppose anyone would do this now—they have kids in helmets when they put them on horses—but I’d put Blithe in the backpack and we’d go off into the woods for hours. Maggie was a young horse, but I knew she offered no danger to my baby. Before I’d mount up Maggie would move her lips over Blithe’s thin hair and fat little arms. When Blithe was on her back, Maggie tiptoed. I think the mare thought Blithe belonged to both of us.
Rich said I hogged Blithe and didn’t give him much chance to know her.
“You waltz into her life a few times a week. How can you expect to have a bond with her?” Now that it was summer he went in the truck every night to check cows. He wanted to take Blithe with him sometimes, but that would have thrown off her schedule. Besides, he didn’t know her signals.
Renee, my friend from high school, asked, “Don’t you feel isolated up there?” Renee and I used to meet for lunch on the spur of the moment. Now we had to plan ahead and I needed to get a sitter. If Blithe got a cold or Renee had to work through her lunch hour, we sometimes had to postpone three or four times. Besides, Renee had a new boyfriend who took a lot of her time.
I told Renee I didn’t mind the solitude because Maggie, Blithe, and I had such a good time when we went riding.
“What about when it turns cold?”
“We’ll be fine.”
But that first winter when Blithe and I had to look out on white, empty fields and the road blew shut, I got lonely. I liked my outside chores and I always took time to visit with Maggie, but even so I’d sometimes put Blithe in the car and drive to Blackfoot so we could walk around Wal-Mart and I could see people.
Wal-Mart, I discovered, had a good selection of wines. Used to be that stores around here didn’t stock wine. Mom always had to get hers at the liquor store and she hated that.
It was easy to pick up wine along with dish soap, hair clips for Blithe, and socks for Rich.
“I counted the number of wine bottles in the trash,” Rich said, “and there were a lot.”
“You always paw through the garbage?”
“Maybe you ought to think about going back to the flower shop.”
“Who would take care of things?”
“Blithe will be in kindergarten next year, and after that she’ll be gone all day for first grade.”
“How about getting her down to the bus stop and back? How about getting her to piano lessons? I want her to have activities.”
“She’s got two parents, Dana.” Then he insulted me. “Do you take Blithe in the car when you’ve been drinking?”
“You think I didn’t learn a hard lesson from my mother?” Mom died at 48 in a rollover.
After that, I counted bottles, put a small number in the trash, and hauled the rest to town and put them in the grocery store’s trash bin. `
Gulch had one of its worst winters the year Blithe went to first grade. The road blew shut a lot and I couldn’t get Blithe to the bus stop. Rich kept his truck down at the highway intersection and drove the snowmobile back and forth. He offered to take Blithe, but the bus was often late and I didn’t want Blithe shivering on a snowmobile, waiting.
Blithe and I played school at home. I taught her counting songs and worked with word cards and though I didn’t know kids to compare her to, she seemed ahead.
Rich worried about Blithe growing up without other kids around. The Richardsons who lived in the next mile had four kids, but the youngest was in junior high.
“An after-school program would give Blithe some playmates.”
“She plays at school.”
“Is it money? It that why you want me to go back to work?”
“Money would help.”
“But that’s not it.” I gave him a disgusted look and left the room.
They gave me a hysterectomy for the bad periods. The operation knocked me out for six months and even though I took replacement hormones I got hot flashes and couldn’t sleep. I didn’t ride Maggie the whole time I was recovering.
Though Rich was gone a lot and I was the one always available, Blithe would nearly jump out of her skin when Rich walked in the door. He suggested getting a pony for her so she could go riding with him—his horse was too excitable to ride double.
But it was Blithe who turned that down.
“I just like Maggie,” she said.
She rode in front or behind me, whichever suited her.
“Go faster, Mom,” she’d say.
“Hang on, Peanut.” She’d wrap her arms around my waist and I’d let Maggie out all the way. Then it’d be just me, Blithe, Maggie, and the wind. No utility bills, no registration papers for cattle, no hidden sacks of bottles, no silences in bed.
Always dainty, Blithe usually was the shortest in her class. But she outgrew riding with me. She still didn’t want her own horse; she wanted to ride Maggie. I let her, of course.
I picked up another horse, a bay gelding. He was a kitten when I rode him at the sale barn, but when I got him home he showed a habit of rearing. He spooked at the color blue, too, and when I wore my blue parka to feed he’d gallop to the end of the corral, eyes crazy with fear. We had blue tarps over our hay stacks and I could hardly get him out of the yard.
I put him through the sale and bought Blanca, a palomino mare. She and Maggie took a dislike to each other and Maggie sprang teeth marks and scars all over her. But Blanca rode okay. I couldn’t hope to find another horse like Maggie, but I considered it one of those selfless things a mother does, letting Blithe take over Maggie.
Blithe liked her jazz dance class, complained about practicing the piano, and made a couple of friends at school. We lived so far out it was hard for her to get together with them, but I was happy to drive her to their houses or pick them up and bring them to ours.
For her 12th birthday, I let Blithe have a sleepover. I rented an armload of videos and made a gorgeous cake. The girls took turns riding the horses and Rich let them drive the tractor.
Blithe acted withdrawn that Monday when she came home from school. “What’s going on, Sweetie?”
“Michaela’s mom said she can’t come here anymore.”
“When she picked up Michaela, she smelled liquor on you.”
“Is Michaela a Mormon?”
“Well, that’s it. They think anyone who takes a drink is a horrible sinner, even if the drink is coffee.”
Blithe’s mouth twisted funny.
Blithe got to where she wanted to take Maggie out by herself and didn’t want Blanca and me to go. Rich wondered if we should worry about that. I said even though she was adopted, she seemed to have my solitary gene.
A couple of months after that the Gulch Store came up for sale and I had the idea to buy it. That would force Blithe and me to be more sociable.
The Gulch Store sat on a gravel road at the top of a rise, an ugly building with an outhouse in front. We knew the store had wiring problems, its pipes froze in winter, and one side of the building sat in the way of runoff in a hard snow year. Ranchers stopped there for coffee in the morning, fishermen came during fishing season, hunters dropped by in the fall. Tourists and hikers on their way camping were customers. Winter brought snowmobilers and cross country skiers wanting hot drinks.
You could get a prepackaged hamburger to microwave and chips, pop, and ice cream, and the place had a pool table. But what made people keep coming was the atmosphere. The place was 70 or 80 years old and all the livestock outfits that had ever operated in the area had burned their brands onto the ceiling. Everybody loved to look at those brands.
The store had been hardscrabble for every owner, but we didn’t need to make much; we had the cows and Rich’s job. Rich sat up late a couple of nights figuring and refiguring, but once he made up his mind he wanted to move ahead. He was excited because of the store’s history.
Blithe had the idea to serve warm brownies because everyone likes them. Maybe she figured that was a way for her to have a steady supply. We publicized there’d be free brownies on the day we reopened, and had 430 customers that day.
The brownies made the place smell wonderful and weren’t hard to make. I used a mix at first, but Rich and Blithe experimented with homemade recipes and found it was simple to make them from scratch.
I got busy in a good way. I fed the cows before I opened the store. Ranchers were used to getting coffee at 7:30, but I slipped that back to 8 and there wasn’t much bellyachin’. Now that Blithe was in junior high, she had to be on a 7 a.m. bus.
During stretches when no one came in, I stocked and cleaned and mixed up brownies. Blithe came there right after school. She liked to hear who’d been in that day and where they came from. You’d be surprised that people from Norway and Australia and Japan find their way to rural Idaho. When I chatted with visitors, I’d fix the details in my mind to tell Blithe.
She was too shy to talk to customers herself. I told her, “It’s not easy for me, either, Honey, but I force myself.” She said, “You’ve got beer to help you.”
Rich told me it wasn’t a good idea to drink with customers, but I didn’t look at it that way. I figured customers liked me joining them.
Blithe had always been a joy for us, but all of a sudden we found ourselves with a sullen teenager we hardly knew. It might have been time for Rich and me to pull together, but we had pisser fights over why Blithe was acting like she did. One day he’d be panicked over her behavior, another day I’d be the frantic one.
Other kids started coming around and we liked that at first, but we came to distrust them, especially the older ones with cars. When we tried to rein Blithe in, she defied us. One night I told her she couldn’t leave the house with friends and she flounced off to her room, screaming real ugly stuff. She slammed the door and we thought that was the end of it, but when we checked her room later she’d sneaked out a window. We drove all over the hills, shining the truck’s spotlight and calling her name.
We phoned the sheriff at 2 a.m. A deputy came up and helped us look. He knew one of the kids Blithe had been running with, an Avery boy, and offered to check at his place.
The deputy found Blithe and two other kids in a shed at the Avery farm, higher than jets on meth. He put them in handcuffs and took them to jail.
That put the fear of God in Blithe. We forbid her to see any of that crowd. Rich suggested we get some counseling for all of us.
We met with a therapist named Laverne. Blithe acted like a little saint—said she’d learned her lesson and didn’t touch drugs anymore. Rich and I wanted hard to believe her because the alternative frightened us so, but Blithe didn’t fool Laverne. She said, “She’s using.”
Blithe mostly stayed home in the evenings now or hung around the store, but that didn’t mean she lacked access to drugs. She got them at school, meth being the easiest because anyone could cook it.
It was May but still felt like February. Rich and I longed for school to be over because we’d located a rehab facility where we planned to send Blithe in June. It was one of those programs where a guy in a suit shows up at the house and captures the kid. Rich didn’t like that aspect of it, but Laverne pointed out an addicted kid doesn’t go willingly to rehab.
One afternoon Blithe didn’t show up at the store. I called the bus dispatch office and asked if she’d been on the bus. The driver said she’d dropped Blithe off on the corner.
I locked up the store and went home. I was relieved when I saw Blithe by the barn saddling Maggie, just like old times.
“There’s still some icy spots by the creek,” I hollered.
“I’ll be careful.”
“I wish Blanca and I could go with you. But I got to get back to the store.”
Blithe gave me a pretty smile, one I’ll never forget. “I’ll come over when I get back and you can tell me about who came in today.” She said it sweetly, like the old Blithe.
I walked toward the store, trying to remember if anybody interesting had been in that day. No, it had just been the locals. But Billy Prestwich had told me about coyotes moving in on their lambing barn and making off with four newborns.
I heard a scream. I didn’t know it came from Maggie because I’d never heard a sound like it; I thought it might be a cougar. I jerked my head in all directions, trying to locate the noise. Then I heard Blithe yelling.
I ran past the house, heading for the barn. I saw Maggie twisting and bucking like a rodeo bronc. Blithe came off and tumbled into the ditch. Maggie kept bawling and bucking, right above her.
I waved my arms to scare off Maggie. “Get, you devil!” I hollered. Maggie whinnied and ran off to the shed, still bucking.
Thank God I had my cell phone on me; I would have been scared to leave Blithe alone with that berserk animal. Blithe was moaning and had blood pouring from her nose.
The ambulance arrived coated in mud. I suppose the driver tore up the Gulch Road as fast as he could, but for Blithe, every minute counted and being so far from town made the difference.
She had tubes everywhere and they’d doped her for the pain. Rich got there in time. We both told her we loved her and I hope what we said got through. All we heard back was moaning.
Rich couldn’t believe Maggie had done what she did. A hospital nurse who raised horses asked if Blithe had been mixed up with drugs. She told us the scent of meth makes some horses go crazy.
We buried Blithe at the Gulch Cemetery. Hundreds of kids from school came. One girl read a poem she wrote. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, but it must have been good because it made the kids cry. The next day the principal called an assembly to talk about Blithe’s death.
After a couple of days, I went back to the store and Rich went off to work. People at both places did their best to offer comfort.
On Saturday, I closed the store early and got home by five. Rich had heated himself a can of soup. He slurped it real slow. When he finished, he went to the cabinet and took out his pistol. I put two pieces of bread in the toaster and watched him walk out the back door.
I hoped he’d do it quick and painless. That didn’t happen, because I heard three shots.
When he got back, he walked over to the counter and laid the pistol down. He came over and put his arms around me. “I got rid of her, Honey.”
A young couple from New York City stopped in the other day. I had a few beers with them and they ended up staying a while. The girl’s name was Beth and she reminded me of Blithe—small and bouncy. His people were local, but he’d been gone from here awhile.
“You serve fresh brownies, don’t you?” he asked.
“Used to. That was my daughter’s idea.” I told them about Blithe. Beth’s face got real sad; the guy kept any expression off of his.
I told them about Maggie, too, and what she’d meant to me. When I told them how she’d met her end, the guy said, “But it wasn’t the horse’s fault!”
I thought Beth being from New York might worry about the cruelty-to-animals thing, but she said, “Your husband had to do that.”
“You couldn’t look out the window every day and be reminded.”
“But I want to be reminded.”
The guy shook his head. “No.”
“Yeah I do. Reminded of the worst days. And reminded of the best days.” I paused. “And what it’s like to run fast.”
“What is it like?” Beth asked.
“Like nothing else.” I stopped right there. I didn’t say that when you’re going fast, you want to go faster and then faster, and you forget all about the gopher holes that are apt to take you down.