Life Lessons — Finding It: Chapter 25
The briskness of a mid-February Saturday smacked me in the face as I stepped outdoors. It was not so terribly cold that I wasn’t dressed for it, except that my face was exposed. But it was chilly enough that I didn’t want to remain long in the wind. The walk from the house, across the creek, and to the barn was invigorating, at least. It helped me work out the stiffness in my muscles from the previous night’s wrestling match. I won, but it took me almost the entire three rounds to pin my opponent.
I invited memories of warmer times to moderate my thoughts, imagining a warm bubble of summer protecting me. And, before I realized it, it was real.
Startled, I groped for a way to burst the bubble, concerned that perhaps I had created something I couldn’t control. But then, as easily as it had formed, it dissipated. I thought about forming another bubble but remembered Dawn’s warning about using magic and the balance of nature. So, I decided not to mess with well enough.
Still, my mind wandered to past times filled with long walks through a pasture or fields of lush green corn or soybeans, until I reached my chores’ daily destination. Whenever it was warm enough, I would go amongst the grazing cattle to walk through the herd of docile heifers. Like innocent children, they knew no fear of me, only the pain of the cattle prod that the stockyards used to persuade them in the preferred direction to be loaded onto a truck for transport. We rarely needed to use such a device until it was time to transport them to market for auction.
Relative simplicity permeated the rural part of my life. Waking in the freshness of a summer breeze coming through a window left open throughout the night, the air contained the scent of memories like a field of freshly mown hay, or the rain cleansed air after a passing thunderstorm. There was nothing better for first thing in the morning on such a lazy day than a walk in the country.
The year I was twelve, before Jean and I decided I should go by Brent instead of Elliot, the most important decision each day was where to go fishing. Would I take a hike across the fields to old man Crane’s Pond or dangle a line and hook over the side of the bridge across Massey Creek, a branch of which skirted around my parents’ backyard down to the orchard? It might be another waking to the heated breath of a sultry calm or a moist chill that hinted at the coming autumn. All I wanted was to bait my hook and cast it into the water, luring some unsuspecting fish to its last fateful encounter.
Despite the blustery bite of February, my thoughts of a past August day warmed my core as surely as the bubble had before but the magic was different, internalized, perhaps safer. Still, I wondered if there would ever again be the ease in my life that I’d known during that period of my life. Childhood ended long before I realized the value of enjoying each moment. It faded to oblivion the instant I cared more about girls than I did about fishing, it seemed. For a boy who is growing up, there’s a time when dating becomes more important than anything else in the world when a dumb boy begins thinking almost like a crazy man.
After climbing the ladder into the haymow of the main barn, I broke bales to toss down to the feeders for the cattle that were fattening in the lot below to be taken to market come late spring. In the end, I tossed some fresh hay down for my horse, Patsy as well. She looked up through the feeder trough, seeing me standing in there. She snorted an accusation I couldn’t refute. Sensing she was lonely, her eyes accused me of ignoring her.
Was it my imagination or my wolfcat senses that were growing stronger, allowing me to know what was on her mind?
“Guilty as charged, hon. It’s been a long time since I spent any time with you,” I said.
Descending from the mow I exited the barn, going around to her stall door, opening it, and stepping inside. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d been inside passing a brush over her coat. Last summer I was there with Renée. I introduced Dawn to Patsy around Christmas. It had been a while, a lot longer since I’d saddled her up and taken her out into the pasture for a ride.
Patsy always enjoyed the attention. As I ran my hand along the smoothness of her chestnut coat, she became my unofficial psychiatrist, listening to my problems just as she had many times over the past few years.
Horse sense is far too rare a commodity for her to give a silly boy advice. She heard me, though I wondered if she were only pretending not to understand. Her playful response to my voice’s tone and inflection encouraged me to reveal all my secrets as I rambled on and on. In the past, it seemed an illusion that I created. She couldn’t possibly know what I was saying. But each time she turned her head, looking toward me as I spoke, it seemed different, maybe possible. Those instances happened to be the exact instant I said anything I felt was particularly profound or revealing. Now that I understood magic and my wolfcat attributes, I knew the truth. Patsy was listening and she did understand, at least on a rudimentary level. And she was responding if I cared to listen.
That realization started me as I stared into her dark chocolate eyes. I wanted her to know what was going on in my life, thinking that maybe in whatever small way, she could help me resolve my problems. It was cathartic if for nothing else than voicing my concerns and organizing my thoughts into meaningful questions. But somehow, knowing she was listening changed the dynamic. It made me a little paranoid, not that I expected her to divulge anything I told her. Still, I knew she was intelligent at a level far higher than the so-called scientific experts comprehended.
Then I decided it didn’t matter as much as needing someone to talk to about my curious dilemmas and starting a relationship with someone new. Was I nuts? Was I actively courting heartbreak?
Patsy didn’t answer except whenever our eyes met, I felt a connection. She thanked me for keeping her company for a while and brushing her coat as I talked. She missed that whenever I forgot about her. She hoped I wouldn’t forget ever again. Patsy was easy to please, maybe the only female there would ever be in my life who was.
My father’s pickup pulled into the corralled area just outside the barn, disturbing my connection with Patsy. He must be looking for me, I thought.
He did not call out, though. Instead, he opened the barn door that led up to the haymow. As I could see him from my vantage behind the hay trough in Patsy’s stall, I said hello to him.
He jumped a bit. “You startled me.”
“Sorry. Just, I already took care of feeding the cattle.”
“Thanks. I thought maybe you’d sleep in today, what with wrestling last night and getting in late the night before.”
“I got enough rest, I think.”
“It’s been a while since you spent any time with her, other than dropping some hay whenever you do chores.”
“Still, she remembers me.”
“She loves being brushed. She probably hopes you’re gonna take her out and ride her.”
“She knows how cold it is outside, Dad. She just wants to be pampered. Being confined to a barn stall all the time is not doing wonders for her equine figure, though.”
“I’ve hung her bridle in the stall so I can take her out for a stroll around the corral, but that’s not nearly what she needs.”
“Maybe I should give her a ride — later if it gets warmer.”
“Yeah, girl, I understand.” I patted the side of her neck.
“I know she’d like to just get outside of this box for a bit. But if you do ride her, go easy on her. She’ll get winded because she hasn’t exercised much. And she’ll be sore afterward. So, make sure you wipe her down.”
I glanced to the bridle where it hung on the stall wall. “Maybe after I finish brushing her down, it will be warm enough.” I resumed my effort and she snorted in response, signaling her approval.
“I was thinking of maybe selling her.” Dad’s suggestion shocked me. “But since she’s your horse — ”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“Let’s talk about it,” he said. “I’ll come ‘round there.”
I waited for him. When he stepped into the stall and closed the door, he turned to me. “What are your thoughts?”
“It makes sense, I guess. I’ll be away at college next year and for all I know, I might never have the time to visit with her. Maybe we should find her a good home where she’ll get more attention,” I said.
“I wanted it to be your decision.”
“I guess we can post an ad in the paper, then.”
“Oh, I have an offer already. It came unsolicited, just in conversation when I was at an auction.”
“Maybe we should do it for her sake. I really don’t have the extra time to spend caring for her anymore. I haven’t for years. She needs to be around kids who love her, feed her carrots and apples, and ride her.”
“Feeling appreciated and loved is not just something humans need. That’s a fact,” Dad said. “It’s what every living thing needs. It’s having basic respect for the others that share this world.”
The hay trough seemed a convenient place for me to lean back to listen to the wisdom of my father. His sense of the truth astonished me. Even if he had no discernable wolfcat attributes, he was as sage as if he had been connected through them to everything else in nature for all his life. Being a farmer had done that for him. To me, he was always a fountain of knowledge and a resource the depths of which I probed with questions from time to time but probably never fully appreciated. What he said was ever profound yet incredibly simple.
“It’s a good family she’d be going to,” he continued, oblivious to how wise his previous words struck me, or how they provoked thoughts. “They live out to the northwest side of London, on a dairy farm.”
“Do they have other horses?” I asked.
“They have several. The youngest two are pintos, a three-year-old stallion, and a two-year-old filly. But they have a couple of mature quarter horses.”
“So, Patsy can make friends.”
“It would be good for her.”
“It would make for an interesting collection of horse personalities.”
“That’s sort of what they suggested. Who am I to argue with horse people?” Dad laughed. “When I was a boy, we had an old draught horse to pull a wagon and a plow. Patsy is really my second experience with a horse.”
“You like her, too.”
“I’ll miss her. She’s been a burden to care for all these years, but at times she’s been useful.”
“Like when the cattle broke down the gate…when was that?”
“That was during the spring storms in ’66 or was that ‘67? We’d just moved over here.”
“I was almost eleven.”
“It had to be ’67 then. She was in her prime then, but it took a horseman to rein her the right way to be useful. One of the Sheriff’s Deputies owned a horse. After that night, he offered me a lot of money for her. He said she was almost thinking ahead of him, like she had tended to escaped cattle before.”
“Patsy’s smart,” I confirmed as I petted her forelock.
“I know you don’t want to sell her.”
“She’s part of the family, Dad.”
“I understand that. I’m thinking about what’s best for her, though.”
“I am too. If the other people could give her a better place to live… Well, you know. But it would kill me to say goodbye to her. I mean, what if she doesn’t want to leave.”
“It’s better than the prison of this barn stall,” Dad said.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s harsh.”
“It’s the truth. Reality’s like that sometimes.”
“I want her to be happy, of course.”
“You say that so easily like you’ve said it before. Maybe about a girl you thought was a little more special than she turned out to be?”
“Don’t ask, Dad.”
He shrugged. “I have to know which one of them it is, Annie, Renée, Dawn, or this new one, Pam?”
I didn’t answer, not because I didn’t want to, but I truly didn’t know the answer. I felt something for each of them, even if in three cases it was clearly not meant to be.
“Okay,” he said, then he shook his head and offered a wry smile.
“What’s that for?”
“There’s apparently a lot of me in you. But I have to ask you an even harder question.”
“I’ll try to answer it this time.”
“When Renée told you that she was seeing another guy, why’d you let her get away that easy?”
“Your mom and I liked her a lot. We could tell you did, too. The two of you spent most of the afternoon over here at the barn.”
“She liked Patsy a lot. She was afraid of her at first, but finally, she worked up the nerve to ride her.”
Dad nodded. “We liked Annie, too, but we understood that she was younger than you and just didn’t know what she wanted. But Renée’s a good girl from a good family. We thought when you started dating her last summer…”
“That’s just it, Dad. Three dates during the summer and I took her to her Homecoming and mine. That’s it. That’s all the time we could find to get together. All the other things we were doing doomed that relationship before it could even get started. Plus, we never really settled on dating steady or anything. She was seeing other guys. I was free to see other girls if I cared to.”
“And then you met Dawn.”
I smiled. “Yeah, that was crazy in its own unique way.”
“I guess I gotta ask if you felt like you were falling in love with any of them?”
“Sure, every time, Dad. But it didn’t work out. It didn’t last. So, according to what you told me a while ago, and what Mom has said, that wasn’t real. Still, it stings the same when it’s over, no matter how brave a face I try to wear.”
“When you fall for someone, and I’m talking about fallin’ hard, it’s more than a sting when it doesn’t work out.”
I nodded. “One of the miracles of life is that anyone wants to try to love again.”
“Pardon the expression, Patsy, but it’s exactly like riding a horse. You just gotta get back on whenever you get thrown off, either riding the same horse or a different one. Once you’re sure, that you are in love with someone, you never stop loving them.”
“So, I guess none of the three girls before Pam felt for you what you did for them. And you just don’t know about Pam yet because it’s too early. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“I guess so, Dad. With Renée, a guy I know asked her out. I mean, he asked me first if it was okay. But I don’t have any strings on her. So, anyway, it was right after Homecoming. She went out with him a few times because he had time for her when she was available, and I didn’t. That’s how I got shut out, because of how busy I am — how busy we both are, our schedules conflicting, and how much she wants to please her parents.”
“And how much you want to please us?”
“There’s that too. But you and Mom aren’t like her parents.”
“We’re more forgiving, you mean.”
“Sometimes.” I chuckled.
“And while Renée was looking elsewhere, you were too?”
“I don’t know, Dad. It just happened with Dawn. Chemistry is what she called it. But in the end, we weren’t all that compatible. And then, I talked to Pam at a wrestling meet. I’d seen her before that, just hadn’t said anything to her. She’s pretty.”
“Is she prettier than Renée or Dawn?”
“I don’t know, Dad. It’s kind of like choosing which sunrise you like better.”
Dad smiled. “Ain’t much point in the comparison, is there?”
“So, what’s wrong in your relationships?”
“It feels like I reach a point of decision. We start to feel like an ‘us’. But then it goes haywire. And it’s like I can see the ‘us’ starting — the possibility of it, but then it dies.”
“Did you have sex with any of them?”
“Not even a blow job or a hand job — if that’s what they’re still called.”
“Dad, you’re embarrassing me.”
“The question’s valid.”
“I know it is. It’s just this conversation has suddenly become surreal.”
“I know what goes on, son. I’m not oblivious to the world.”
“So, you have tried to evade answering my question, but you know that trick doesn’t work with me.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I’ve never done anything sexual with anybody. Annie was always too young. I don’t know Pam well enough and even though I have known Renée for a while, and spent more time with Dawn, it never got to that point. It came close with Dawn, but she’s a little bit older than me and that mattered to her.”
“You would have though?”
“Yeah, I would have. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth.”
Dad lowered his eyes. “If having sex is your objective, you’re missing the whole point of having a relationship. It’s important, but it should never be the goal. I know Renée’s father. And having talked to her many times, I know she’s a good girl. I don’t know anything about Dawn’s family. She seemed to have a good head on her shoulders. And this Pam, I’m hoping she is. I guess we’ll see if you’re gonna get serious about her. But my point is you need to respect whoever you’re dating and let the relationship become its own reward. Let everything else follow from that.”
“I have respected all of them, Dad. But them being good girls has nothing to do with whether we have sex.”
“It has everything to do with it!” He raised his voice. “It indicates the moral bearings of the girl, and you — and how you were raised. I thought we raised you better.”
“What it indicates, for whatever reason, is whether they are as prudish as you and Mom have made me.”
Dad fell silent for several moments. But when he finally spoke it was with a different timbre to his voice. “You don’t know what it’s like being a man. Not yet. And that’s my fault for not teaching you better, but I can tell you for a fact that everything you do matters. Whatever you do in a relationship affects you, whether the feelings last or not. It affects others and your relationships with them. You may start out being kind and understanding with one another, but you eventually learn how to be cruel and hurtful.”
“You raised me the right way. I’m careful. And I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
Dad looked at me and then shook his head as he leaned forward and stood away from the horse stall’s railing. “You are like me in many ways and then again you’re not. You’re like your mother too, but you have other strange ideas you’ve picked up here and there. Maybe from watching too much TV when you were younger. Or maybe from kids at school. I don’t know.”
“I’m me, Dad.”
“I reckon you are.” Then he started to walk away but at the door to the stall, he turned back. “You know you’re the result of many attempts and almost twenty years of trying to have another boy to replace Barry.”
“I realize that.”
“I don’t know if we always did the right things in raising you. Your mom believed you had something about you that maybe I don’t see. She even has this crazy story that maybe she’s told you by now, about how your birth was predicted.”
“The part about the leaking sounds in the eavestrough at the farmhouse where you guys lived.”
“No, that’s another one entirely. I’m talking about the chicken coop and the voice she heard.”
“That’s the creepier one of the two.”
“Yeah,” Dad said. “But she insisted on trying again. That was when you were conceived. So, who knows? I believe that she believes, so it doesn’t matter much what really happened.”
“She thinks I’m a miracle baby.”
“I don’t know about that.” Dad chuckled. “But your mom has always thought you’re the answer to our prayers. For that reason, she’s been easy on you. I had to be tough at times to offset things.”
“You caved in on buying me a bike when I was seven.”
“I’ve caved in too many times for things you wanted over the years. You’re spoiled.”
“But at first you always said ‘no’.”
“If our places were reversed, and I wanted to persuade you to make that kind of decision… you’d do the same thing.”
“Maybe so.” I laughed.
“I’m glad you think it’s funny. When you have kids, you’ll feel differently.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“You think ’cause I’m getting on in years I’m not aware of what goes on. But I know. You think the rules are different, that a generation or two changes everything. But it’s always the same. Just more people find it easier to break rules than follow them. People still get hurt in the same way they always have.”
“It seems like the rules are set against me.”
“Rules are intended to make things fair, but that doesn’t always work out.”
“I had my chances, Dad, and I’ll always wonder about that. Any guy would, but I didn’t. I’m wondering if that was my opportunity and I missed it.”
“Would it have been okay because one or the other was willing? That’s what you’re asking.”
“I guess that’s it.”
From Dad’s expression, I knew my directness startled him as much as the content of my question disturbed him. But it was too late to claim that I was only kidding. In the extended silence his eyes bored a hole through me.
“It worries me that you think that way. It’s your hormones more than your sense. I guess I’ve needed to intervene long before now. You’re too old and too headstrong now for anything I say to you to matter as much as it needs to.”
“I have it under control.”
He shook his head. “A very wise fellow said that any man who thinks his relationship with any woman is under his control is either a fool or a liar.”
“I’ll accept being a fool.”
“You need to know I’m serious about what I just told you. It may not be carved into anything marble anywhere in the world, but it needs to be.”
I continued to brush Patsy’s coat.
“You have to pay attention to a girl if you want to have a relationship with her,” Dad said. “Maybe the reason you’re having trouble is you’re treating the girls you date like you do Patsy.”
“What do you mean?”
“You come here when you feel like it, not when she needs it.”
“How would I know when she needs it?”
“That’s the point. You should know. If you don’t, then you don’t really have the feelings you need.”
Dad was right, of course, but I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I didn’t want to admit my flaws, that I was wrong, and at least partially to blame for what happened in each of my past relationships.
“Call the people about Patsy. Arrange for them to come for her in a few days,” I decided. “I just need to say goodbye to her.”
“Yeah. It’s not right for her to be here alone.”
Dad smiled. “I think you’re doing the right thing… for everyone.”