Kate drives out of town slowly with the windows down. The thick wet smell of all the fresh cut lawns drifts in. The three traffic lights she meets turn green. This makes her smile. She goes out driving when she’s upset, which isn’t often, but often enough. And she drives when she’s happy, perhaps not as often, but again she supposes, often enough. Sometimes she’s lonely, distracted, and thankful that she is on a straight line that if she wanted, could go on and on and on. When she’s angry, she makes sharp turns through the little neighborhoods nestled close to home, and, driving too fast, she forces herself home quickly. She’s scared to hit someone blindly crossing a street or a little kid chasing a ball off their lawn. Jason would be waiting for her then, standing on the drive looking worried and apologetic. She’d get out and know to say, I’m okay, I’m okay, and to go take a bath or a glass of wine out back to the little deck he’d built and look over all the unused acres. He knows not to follow her but to wait until she is actually okay.
Sometimes she just drives to be on the road with a blurred far-off feeling that she just needs everything to settle down inside her a little deeper, down to her center. But today it is none of those things, none that she can recognize and bring up at least. Or maybe she’s just feeling that something is missing, and she’ll drive until the feeling goes, but that too she cannot identify.
She tells herself that today she is driving to find the quiet, to get out of town and let the houses and little feed shops and hardware stores thin and thin and thin until there are just the low-slung fences and the uncut grass, little farmhouses up on the sloping hills surrounded by leaning trees and rare shade. She wants to reach that place inside where she feels at home with the car’s engine and its low drone, the easy way it listens and responds when she presses her foot on the gas or lets it up gently, and how loosely she can rest her hands on the wheel, as loosely as if she were cupping dried dandelions to bring to someone to make a wish.
Driving like this, like she does, of course it brings feelings, all kinds really. She feels all those things she is driving away from, whatever comes up – Jason, their little too small house with the too big back yard and all those acres dwarfing it; Cathy and Ed who live next door in a much bigger house; the kids she teaches during the week having birthday parties or soccer games or breakfasts and brunches with their grandparents; the little town they live in that she is sure will never feel like hers. Because there is nowhere she is going she can only and just let these left behind things come up, then let them get pulled out the window in the wind like little seeds – let them grow somewhere else – her chestnut hair whipping around and behind her.
We can only know what we are leaving behind, she thinks, and then flips the radio on and turns the dial for something to distract her from all that. She comes out of town and speeds along the two-lane road that cuts all the old family farms in half. She doesn’t like country music, not at all, but it’s all she can pick up out here and so she keeps the volume down, just an unintelligible murmur blending with the sound of the engine and the wind pulling through the open windows.
Up on a hill, in a square patch of sun, cows are lying down and she remembers her father telling her that that meant it was going to rain. It never did, not after he would point them out and tell her, and not now either, not a cloud in the sky and just the blue, deep blue, that seems to be always on and never changing around here. She slows as she passes them, little black and white playthings like they are part of some toy train set, and she hears her father’s voice in her head, just like always, telling about the rain.
Nobody is on the road – Sunday – and so she presses her foot on the gas and the little pickup hunkers down. She flies past two teens twisting barbed wire where something had broken through, their red faces and straw hats a blur, and they stop what they’re doing and stand up straight and watch her go. Farther on, a little speck of a man sits on a slow red tractor with a wide tiller behind it, making his way back and forth toward the fence line and she thinks she sees him wave. People are friendly around here, but maybe he’s flagging her to slow it down because when she looks, she sees she’s doing eighty-five and it is then that she hears the high troubled whine of the engine. She knows from experience that the Sherriff likes to pull into the drives behind the tall uncut grasses and set his radar. He’s nice enough about it when he does catch you, if you’re a local, but he has his quota to make, and so she lets off the gas and keeps it at an easy sixty-five.
Sure enough, a mile or two farther up the road, she sees the glint of the sun off of chrome and the gumball lights through the swaying grasses. She passes the Sherriff at a safe sixty. She checks the rearview to make sure he isn’t pulling out, then, once she’s moved along the easy curve of the road and beyond sight, she gets herself going again until the wind is like a tornado moving through the cab. She sets her mind drifting, pushing out thoughts of turning around and heading back, of Jason worrying for her or wondering why she’d headed out in the first place. She doesn’t really know herself, just wanted to drive and drive and drive and this time maybe, just see where it takes her.
Time is always nagging at her, maybe because of the way it marches and marches through her weeks. All those bells announcing the start of the day, the end of homeroom, in between classes, the end of the day. Her life is metered off in fifty-minute troughs and she is always aware when another fifty has passed, another rising up ahead of her.
After miles have thinned out behind her with her mind comfortably blank and empty, she is now farther along and away from town as she has ever been in this direction. She starts to feel those bells ringing and if she turns around now it will be an hour back, or more since she must stay careful of the Sherriff who likes to change position and catch people both coming and going. They can’t afford another speeding ticket and she can’t afford to hear about it from Jason. She doesn’t want to turn around, though, not yet, and has finally achieved that peace and empty headedness that she had wanted. She still just wants more of it. But the bells are going, and half her mind is already starting to look up ahead for a break in the fences where she can pull in and turn back.
Up ahead, beyond the unfarmable rough of trees and scrub she’s been passing, she can see a high white fence starting up and moving along the gentle rise and fall of the meadow it marks. Up that hill, still distant, a tin roof reflects the sun back to her in a white flash and rainbow that she must look away from so she doesn’t blind herself and go veering off the road. There will be a drive somewhere along that fence and she’ll nose in and turn around to head back home. She is not usually gone this long and so, ready or not, it’s time. She slows.
As she moves past the trees and bramble, there where the pristine white of the fence begins, a horse necks out over the top slat, side-eyeing as if he was waiting just for her. This is cow country she knows, and the horses are working horses kept up in the shade and barns behind the houses and out of sight. She hasn’t seen one loose and grazing a front paddock that she can remember. A beautiful brown boy, his coat slicked from the hot sun showing darker and lighter, matching her hair and the way it too changes color in the light. His mane is short-cropped and folded over gently, a spotty here-and-there white diamond centered high between his eyes, and a splash of white down to his nose. Otherwise, all and only that rich red-brown-tan until his hind legs appear through the slats of the fence and she sees perfectly matched and pure white, like two socks pulled high to his hocks with a clean even line marking the start of his strong-muscled gaskins. He whinnies and turns, waits for her to roll out ahead of him, and then he runs, an easy flowing gait that matches her speed even when she plays with him and lets her foot go heavier, then lighter, on the gas. She laughs out loud and the sound of it seems foreign and new to her and goose bumps splash down her neck and across her shoulders and the running horse whinnies again as if he’s laughing too. He pulls ahead of her and then she races past him, slows, and they trade off the lead.
She is smiling and saying go, go, go under her breath and he checks her as he runs alongside, deep soulful brown eyes, easy and straight-running even when he dips and turns his head. She just barely catches the break in the fence up ahead, a cattle-crossing breach that marks the start of the gravel drive up the hill to the tin roof, now a splotch of silver white light glowing like an aura over a sweet looking little house with a surrounding front porch, deep under the shadows of the eaves. She pushes the brakes hard and the horse slows with her, and she cranks the wheel to turn into the dry dirt and loose stones and a yellow-brown dust kicks up and rolls over the truck, thick and hot through the open windows. The horse chuffs lightly.
It’s not like her to get out, but she does, and the horse puts his weight first on one leg, and then the other, excited for her to come to him. His tail swishes behind him and it sounds like the push broom sweeping the halls after school. She comes around the car and he leans his head farther out over the top of the fence and his ears go up and he makes that funny chewing sound she remembers from when she was a little girl. He’s tall and broad and strong and she sees the muscles rolling under his coat, and the veins pulsing with his heartbeat across his haunches. His eyes are deep and round and brown, and they follow and reflect her as she approaches.
She used to love horses, and not just like all the other little girls her age who had the collection of models up on their white bookshelves, but with a seriousness and a passion that even her father took note of. Not that she would ever have been one of those kids who had one, or even was able to take lessons, but still she studied them and learned them like she would be tested on it. That’s how she knows the hocks and gaskins.
Whenever they would be out on the road, which was often, maybe always if she’s being honest, anytime there was a horse – much like this one, roaming on the other side of a fence – if there was a way to stop, she’d make her father stop. She’d climb up onto the middle plank in the fence and beckon, or if they wouldn’t come, she’d just watch and make clucking noises that she thought would bring them closer. When her father remembered he’d buy some carrots or sliced apples for the cooler and when he’d done that they’d cautiously walk over and eat from her hand.
When they’d pass one of the corrals open to the public and selling off studs she’d make them stop. There was no real reason why she’d stopped loving them so much, but going off to school in the city, then meeting and marrying Jason, and losing her dad like she did, she also lost those things that used to captivate and occupy her when otherwise there was only quiet, or the roll of the tires and the gentle sway of their camper as they drove. Lately she’d looked for quiet with nothing to put in its place, and perhaps that’s where she had been getting it wrong.
She puts her hand out palm up and lets the sweet boy graze over it with his heavy lips. She wishes she had something to give him but the salty sweat on her hand, she knows, is a treat. Once he’s done and lifts and tilts his head to better take her in, she comes close and wraps her arms around his strong neck. He lowers his head down over her shoulder and it becomes a shared embrace. She feels so many things drifting out of her and away. She releases her held breath, and she feels her feet ground down and anchor and then all the tension in her body, perhaps years of it, seems to spill out of her and seep down into the dry dirt. He chuffs lightly and puts the full weight of his head on her shoulder. She feels him mouthing at her leather belt behind her and she laughs and comes out from under him and lifts his head so she can hold him gently on either side and rest her lips against the soft of the worn white patch just above his nose. She breathes him in, in and out and in.
“Sue?” a frail tentative call from a little way up the drive and Kate realizes that she’s been nuzzled down into this sweet horse’s face and just simply drifting. Now she can hear the scuffle of feet kicking up gravel, coming closer, realizes that the horse and the truck probably block her from full view, and that she’s been mistaken for someone else, someone known.
She ducks under and around the leaning head of the horse and pulls herself up straight. It’s an elderly couple, holding each other at the elbows, still dressed from Church and shuffling down the drive. If she hadn’t been in such a state, she would have heard them coming from a lot farther up the drive. The old lady’s face drops when she sees Kate, and her hand comes away from her husband’s where they were clasped together over each other’s arms.
“I’m sorry,” Kate says. “I’m so sorry to make you walk. I was just going to turn around here in your drive and then this sweet boy seemed to want a hello, and well, I’m not really sure why I got out.”
“Oh, that’s no trouble. A little walk is good for us, and you’re right, this one needs a little kindness,” the old man says and smiles at her. His wife pulls her face back into a smile.
“He needs a lot more than that,” she adds.
“More than the two of us can give him, that’s a known fact,” but he says this more to his wife than to Kate.
“Please don’t mind us,” the old lady says. “We haven’t had a visitor come up here in so long, and just for a minute there you looked like someone we used to know.”
She links her hand back through her husband’s arm, but he turns to her, and this breaks their connection again.
“You don’t stop knowing someone just because they don’t come around anymore,” and even though he has a gentle, soft voice, Kate can tell he’s upset with his wife for saying it.
“She doesn’t just not come around anymore,” his wife’s voice comes out stronger than his did. “She left, she drove off just like that and didn’t come back. That’s not the same as not coming around anymore. For goodness’ sake.”
The old man looks down at his feet, mostly, but he gives Kate a little sideways smile that his wife can’t see, like he’s embarrassed to know a secret and isn’t sure whether to tell it.
“I’m sorry,” Kate says, and the horse nudges her gently between her shoulder blades, but it would be rude to turn to him now. “I’m sorry I’m not Sue.”
“Oh no you’re not honey,” the old lady says. “That part I feel sure of.”
“Look over there,” the man says, changing the subject, and points off across the road to the cows laying down one by one in a cluster. “When the cows lie down like that it means rain is coming.”
Kate doesn’t turn to see but she gives the old man a curious look.
“It’s not going to rain,” his wife says. “Stop all that silliness. Those cows are just tired is all, just like you and me, weary and tired.”
“Can I drive you both back up to the house?” Kate asks. “It’s gotten awfully hot just while we’re standing here.”
“That’d be fine,” the man says.
“That’d be welcome,” his wife says.
Kate turns to give the horse a scratch behind his ear, then opens the passenger door and the old man helps his wife in, then slides in alongside her.
“What’s his name,” Kate asks, then blushes because she realizes she didn’t ask theirs and didn’t give hers.
“Two Socks,” the man answers, and the horse whinnies when he hears his name. “Because of those white socks in the back.”
Kate makes sure the old man is all the way in and then closes the door. Before she goes around to her side to get in, she puts her head back down against Two Sock’s head and she breathes in the smell of him, like grass and sun and a cooling breeze.
“I’ll miss you buddy,” she whispers. “But thanks for reminding me.”
The three of them squeeze together on the little bench seat and Kate moves slowly up the drive with Two Socks walking easily along the fence beside them until the opposing fence stops him from going and he puts his head over it and looks up toward the house until they pull in beside it and the old man opens his door.
“Let me give you some cold tea dear,” the old lady says. “And my goodness, where are my manners. What’s your name honey? I’m Effie, and this is my husband, Dale.”
“I’m Kate,” Kate says.
“Oh, what a pretty name,” Effie says. “Kathryn I’d guess, just like royalty.”
“It sure is nice to meet you Kate,” the old man says.
“We don’t get many visitors these days,” Effie says, and she must have forgotten that she’d told her that already.
When they’re done with the tea and the cool shade of the porch Kate thanks them and lets them know her husband’s probably worried she’s run off, but they don’t laugh and she realizes she may have pushed on a bruise.
“Well, we can’t have that now can we?” Effie finally says, and Dale just shakes his head.
“Before you go though, let’s get you a picture of you and your new friend, so your husband knows you haven’t been up to no good,” Dale says.
“Oh Dale,” Effie says. “What a horrible thing to say.”
But Dale is already up and out of his chair and heading back into the dark of their house.
“He loves his little polaroid,” Effie says, and puts her hand on Kate’s knee to push herself up out of her chair.
Kate stands at the fence and Two Socks comes behind her and leans his head down over her shoulder, Kate puts her arm up around his head and Dale snaps the picture. They go back up to the porch and Dale fans the little print in the air waiting for it to come clear. It’s a perfect picture and in it both she and horse are smiling, side-by-side, and looking straight up into the camera.
Dale and Effie wave her away in her rearview, and as she rolls back down the drive the horse trots along beside her. When she makes the turn onto the blacktop, he races with her along the fence until the trees and rough bramble come up and then she watches in her sideview mirror while he in turn, watches her go. Down the road the Sherriff has some young drivers in a souped-up car pulled over in her lane and he waves to her as she pulls around and passes. The broad field where the tractor had been tilling is all fresh grey dirt now, ready to be planted, and the fence, a little farther along, has been mended. She keeps her speed down and just watches everything go by as it passes.
When she finally pulls into their driveway Jason is sitting on the front steps with a beer. He smiles and waves at her and she smiles back. She sits on the stoop with him and takes his beer for a sip.
“Where you been all this time?” Jason asks. “Thought maybe you’d run off,” but he laughs after.
She pulls the polaroid out of her shirt pocket and studies it for a moment, she and the horse next to each other, separated by the fence. She holds it out for Jason to see and he leans into her like she likes.
“You think you could build something for him out back?” she asks, almost a whisper. “A simple stall, a fence for a paddock?”
He looks at her, right into her eyes.
“I can do that,” he says. “I can do that for you.”