Wake up to the cock crowing in the front yard. It isn’t even light out yet. Through your bedroom window on the second story of the farmhouse you can see the summer sky just starting to turn pink and purple at the edge of the pasture. You see one of the yearlings bucking around the fence waiting for breakfast.
Sit up slowly and listen to the cock crow and the mattress springs scream under your weight. Regret the beer you drank with your dad last night. Regret the things you barely remember saying about missing Mom and wishing he would take better care of himself and the farm. Wonder if you actually said you needed to get out of this small town and see the world or if you just thought it. Sigh. Promise yourself not to bring it up today and hope he doesn’t either.
The wooden floors are cold around your bed, so you slip on your mom’s old slippers you’ve worn since she died three years ago. Put on your mucking jeans and a flannel because you can feel the cool morning air slipping in through the single pane windows. Leave the slippers inside your door and shut it to make sure your dad won’t see them. He’s coping as well as any man can cope, but he still doesn’t sleep in the master bedroom, and he still hasn’t cleaned out her closet, so you’re not sure what coping even means anymore.
Trot down the stairs counting your steps like you do in the dressage shows and turn the corner around the banister, through the hallway and into the kitchen. Nearly slip but catch yourself on the counter covered in unopened mail.
Your dad is already sitting at the small round table by the stove. He drinks from an old red mug, the same one he uses every morning, and reads over yesterday’s paper. When you come in, he looks up and smiles the best he can.
“Morning,” you say. You always say it with a smile because one day, you know, he won’t be around to say it to anymore. You’ve gotten comfortable with the idea. You often think about waking up to a quiet house with a more cheerful roommate.
“Hey,” he says. He tries to say it with the same enthusiasm because he knows that “one day” is in a month. He knows you’ll be heading in your 2008 Ford pickup to Pennsylvania State University just over the state line and you won’t be home for him to say “hey” to anymore. He hasn’t gotten comfortable with the idea. He spends hours in the afternoon searching for a new ranch hand because without you it’s only him, and he can’t manage five mares, two yearlings, and a foal all by himself on top of the pond full of catfish and koi fish and the pen full of chickens that like to peck each other near to death.
You slip on your boots and head out before eating because you don’t eat until the horses eat and the horses don’t eat until you get off your ass. That’s what your dad used to say when he wasn’t broken, before he was a single parent and a lonely farmer and in charge of a teenager. You try to lessen the burden on him. You do work around the farm. You graduated with honors from a high school that held two hundred students. You got accepted to a great college with scholarships, so the family won’t go into debt. You only drink when you’re not driving, when you’re with him or when your friend Cindy who drives you out to the Buckman’s ranch for late night bonfires and stargazing in the bed of Steve Striker’s truck. You don’t sleep with Steve, even though you really want to, because your dad knows when a horse goes into heat and he’d definitely smell the sex on you. He’d feel obligated to give you a talk, a talk that your mother should have had with you, that she would have nailed, but one that coming from him made both of you uncomfortable. So, you don’t sleep with Steve. You convince yourself college guys are better anyway.
The yearling without a name—because she’s due to be sold to a breeder from Virginia in a couple weeks—trots along the fence towards the barn as you come down. The barn is red, the classic kind of red you see in books and movies. When your parents bought the farm, when they were in their twenties, before they had you and before cancer moved into your mom’s lung, the barn was a dusty brown. But your mom insisted that barns had to be red. They were always red, she said. And so before they moved in their first batch of Clydesdales, they painted the barn red from top to bottom and added crisp white trim like something out of a magazine.
The barn isn’t that red anymore. It’s worn and faded. Chunks are missing from the trim. Sometimes you find the large white flakes in the grass and throw them out before your dad can see. He keeps talking about repainting it. Something more rustic, he says, like he actually knows what he’s talking about. Maybe blue? But he never buys paint, and you know it’s because your mom painted it red, and barns can no longer be any color but red. But your mom picked that paint, and without her, how would he know if he was choosing the right shade of red?
Open the red door and greet Sully who meows at you from the top of an empty stall. Rub his orange fur until he purrs loudly, then go into the closet and give him one of the cat treats you keep by the feed. Fill a bucket with your dad’s special breakfast mixture: oats, sugar, dried apple, and carrots. Put a handful of ginger snaps in your pocket as a treat.
You don’t mind the weight of a full metal bucket because you grew up on a farm and have masculine arms and more muscle than any other girl your age. Your dad’s had you mucking stalls since you could hold a shovel. Some of the women in town ask if you’re a gymnast or a cheerleader and almost seem disappointed when you tell them “No, I’m a farmer.” Sometimes they say you’re too pretty to be a farmer. This is a response you’re used to. Think about how nice Penn State will be full of agriculturalists and environmentalists. Think about the stable you found nearby where you can board your gelding, Fuz, and where you can go after class every day and ride. Smile a little when you think of the famous parties and the guys who will be there that are much hotter than Steve Striker.
Kiss Berta’s long brown nose when she sticks her head over the top of the first stall to greet you. She whinnies and kicks at the door, restless to go out, but her stomach is swollen twice its size and there’s a bed of straw built up in the corner, so you know it’s only a matter of time before she gives birth.
“Sorry, Berta,” you say. “No pasture today.”
Give her a ginger snap from your pocket because you genuinely feel bad that she has to be cooped up. Tell her you know she wants to have her baby outside, but that snakes and coyotes are always looking for something weak to sink their teeth into. You know she can understand you. They all can. Horses are smart like that, your mother used to say. They always listen, and they always understand, and that’s why they are so unlike people.
Pour the breakfast mix into her bucket over the door. Fill each bucket in the six empty stalls and make sure they all have fresh water.
Meet the anxious yearling at the gate that connects the pasture and the barn. She’s a lighter brown with a long white stripe down her face. The fur around her hooves is starting to grow out. When you open the fence to let her in, make sure she runs right to her open stall, and smile when she does because in only a few months you’ve trained her well. Don’t think about her leaving the farm. Don’t think about the man she’s going to with the bad teeth stained from chewing tobacco who treats horses like dollar signs instead of pets.
Turn back to the gate when you hear hoofbeats. Count the four big mares as they come in. Watch them each go to their own stall, and when the other yearling comes in, grab his halter before he can go into his mother’s stall and lead him to the one next door with a fresh feed bucket and straw.
“This is your stall, Magnus” you say. “You come in here.”
Shut the gate before he can run out. He’s spirited and strong already. You dad says he will sell well at auction in the fall. His father is a retired Budweiser horse, and those genes alone add a few zeros.
When you feel the hard thud on your back, don’t be surprised. Turn around and press your face against Fuz’s long nose that’s already in your personal space. Wish him a good morning. Fuz is eighteen hands high, large for a jumper, but small compared to the Clydesdales. He’s a quarter horse, like most good show horses, and his gait is much prettier than a thoroughbred’s. Their legs always seem too long, but you think maybe that’s because their riders braid their tails too tightly and cut their mane too short and act too stuck-up.
Walk Fuz to his stall and lock it.
You have resolved to start packing your things and deciding what you want from the storage room in the basement. You know your dorm will be furnished, but you also know that dorms are unpleasant places and need as much personal possessions as possible to feel anything like a home.
Make sure all the stalls are closed and locked before you go back up to the house. Find your dad still at the table with a new cup of coffee on the same page of the newspaper.
Tell him, “Babies are fed.” Then go to the fridge and pull out some bacon and grab a couple eggs from the basket on the counter. Don’t look back while you’re making breakfast, and don’t ask your dad if he wants any. He doesn’t eat breakfast anymore.
Tell him you’re going to go through the storage room and will take out some things you want for college. Tell him how excited you are, but don’t look back, don’t feel guilty about leaving. Don’t buckle when he says he didn’t know you accepted the offer.
“Well, it’s a full ride, dad. And mom loved Penn State,” you say. Remember your mom in her PSU jerseys. Remember how she beamed when she talked about her alma mater. Say none of this. “Remember how you two would argue when Ohio State played them?” Try to laugh, but don’t be too fake or jittery. Don’t take it personally when he gets up without a word and goes outside to feed the chickens.
When you’re done with your breakfast, which you eat slowly while thinking about getting out of this house that seems haunted, not by your mother’s ghost but by your father’s, go outside. The sun has risen above the horizon and hangs low. It bounces off the pond and up into your eyes. You put up your hand as a visor and look for your dad. That’s when you hear the loud thwacking from behind the house. The grass is soft and wet with the early morning dew. It squishes under your feet as you make your way up the small hill to the backyard. Your dad brings the axe down on a log, splitting it in two. It might as well have been a toothpick. His red flannel is tied around his waist, and you can see the soft spots on his belly that used to be abs. You know your dad used to be very handsome because of the pictures your mom has framed all around the house. It’s only in recent years that he’s stopped caring about his body, that he drinks more beer and less water, that he doesn’t eat what or when he should.
He looks up at you. “We’re out of chicken feed,” he says.
Offer to go into town because you know that’s what he wants and because you want to stop by the mall and get some new clothes. You’ve been thinking a lot about the clothes you’ll bring to college, and when you look through your closet, you realize that all your clothes are for a farm girl. At Penn State you can’t just be a farm girl. Promise you’ll be right back when he insists there’s too much work to do for you to be lollygagging. Run to the house and get the keys. Get in your truck and drive slowly down the long road with the windows down.
When you get into town, it’s only a little past seven. You catch Phil Martin, the feed store owner, as he’s unlocking the garage door and propping it open for business. He doesn’t ask you about school, but he does ask about your dad. Tell him he’s doing great. Tell him he’s looking for a farm hand. When he says that his youngest, only fifteen but big for his age, is looking for work during the school year, enthusiastically put his number into your phone.
As you load the feed bags into the bed of your truck, give yourself a pat on the back. Dad will be just fine. The Martins are good people. You even know young Michael and think he and your dad would get along just fine. Both quiet types. Both hard workers. And both a little slow on the uptake. Confidently tell yourself that going to school is the best thing for both of you, that six hours isn’t that far away, and that now you don’t have to feel guilty at all because it won’t just be him taking care of the farm.
As a reward, give yourself more time at the mall. Dad will be so happy when you get home that it doesn’t matter if you’re a little late for mowing the grass. Check out three different stores. Buy some new jeans, ones that are tight and uncomfortable, ones without holes and grass stains. Walk away from the rack of flannels. Pick up some tank tops instead. Buy some sweaters. Ignore the looks from the check-out girls who don’t think these clothes are for you. Pretend you don’t see them looking you over and pretend you don’t hear them whispering while you leave.
Drive slowly out of town and down the long road. Look at the clock and realize that it’s almost eleven. Resolve that you will not make up an excuse. You will tell your dad you needed new clothes. You will ignore his lecture. You will interrupt his anger with Michael Martin’s number, and he will be happier for it.
When you pull into the drive, leave your clothes in the passenger seat. You don’t see your dad; assume he’s in the barn. Get into the back of the truck and lug each of the three bags one at a time across the front lawn to the shed by the chicken coop. Throw a handful of food at the rooster who keeps trying to come near you and call him a “pretty boy” and not a “fucking asshole” like you want to. They react to aggression, your dad says.
When the bags are stored and the door is locked again, go down to the barn to give your dad the good news. Go over in your head how you’ll tell him. Think of the compliments for Michael that are the most important. Don’t mention how squeamish he was at the pool last year when he cut his arm on the wire fence.
The barn door is ajar, and Sully rubs himself against the aged wood. He meows at you and demands to be pet before you can enter. Inside the horses are loud. You hear them kicking their stalls.
Then you see the open stall. Run to it, but don’t scream. Not when you see the blood. Not when you see the tear in his shirt and his purple and blue shoulder. Not when you see the deep cuts from horseshoe bolts on his collar bone. Listen for his breathing. When you hear it, resist the urge to slap him. Shake him gently and call his name. “Dad,” you say. Say it several times, then shout, “Robert!” Keep going until he opens his eyes and groans.
Ask, “You okay?”
Help him sit up and take off your flannel. Tie a makeshift sling and force it over his shoulder. Pull away when his shoulder bone rolls and rubs like creaking wood under your hand.
Feel the heat rise in your face when he looks around and says, “Shit.”
Forget his shoulder. “You know not to open the door when she’s like this,” you say. Scold him with your eyes, the way your mother used to. Wonder if he winces because of the kick or the glare.
Vaguely hear him say he’s sorry as you stomp away.
Find the pasture gate open and walk through it. Put your hand over your eyes again and glare against the summer sun. Right or left? Decide to go left. There’s a patch of grass under trees you know—and Berta knows— would make a great birthing bed. Angrily kick the rocks on the way. Think about what you’ll say when you go back. He is so irresponsible. Man works on a farm most of his life and opens a pregnant horse’s stall. Resist the urge to call him an idiot.
Stumble in a hole in the dirt and growl at it. Notice all the other holes that are begging to break your horses’ legs with one wrong step. Call him an idiot several times over.
Survey the area again. In the shade a few hundred yards away, you notice the large brown spot lying beneath the trees. Run, don’t walk. Slow down only when you’re close enough to spook her. Call her name quietly, and when she stands up, put your hands out defensively. Watch her lumber over to you, belly swollen.
Sigh because you are relieved. Thank all the gods you can think of but don’t really believe in. Pet Betra on the nose and grab her purple halter. Lead her back to the barn while whispering calm, loving words into her ear. Repeat “idiot” in your head between sentences.
When you come back and find your father standing by the gate, walk past like he isn’t there. Resolve to throw your now bloodied flannel away. Remember the cute clothes you got for school. Remember the hot guys. Remember there is a life away from here and him.
Put Berta back in her stall and remember the holes in the dirt. Remember your father lying on the floor. Know he could have died, and quickly come to terms with it. Turn back to him and wait for an explanation.
“She kicked over her water bucket,” he says. “I didn’t think—”
Roll your eyes. “No, you didn’t think.”
“Well, maybe if you were here instead of running around, you could have helped me.”
Resist the urge to hit him. Clench your fists at your side. “You’re going to have to get used to doing things without me.”
“Right, because school is so much more important than your family.”
Remind him of the conversation you had years ago with Mom, about how they both pushed you towards college. Don’t cry. Hold the tears in. Shove your balled hands in your pockets.
“Well, your mom isn’t here anymore, is she?” he says.
Don’t follow when he storms out of the barn past you. Sit on the floor by Fuz’s stall and think about the end of August. Think about driving away and not looking back.
When you go back to the house, sit at the table with your father who’s changed shirts and gotten rid of the sling. Don’t ask about your shirt. Suggest he go to the doctor and don’t be surprised when he brushes it off. Notice the way his lips are set. Don’t say anything when he says that your cousin Corey is willing to take over the farm. He just got off the phone with him, and Corey is happy to do it. He can still live here as family. Or maybe he’ll get an apartment in town. He taps the screen of his phone as he talks and avoids looking at you.
Corey is a good guy with a nice family. But he breeds thoroughbreds and race horses, not work horses.
“You want to sell the farm.”
“Well, I can’t very well take care of it on my own.” Watch him wince against the pain of his tense body and take two aspirin from a bottle on the table. “Corey will take care of things.”
“Corey’ll sell off the horses and the land in months.”
Stand up and lean against the table. Feel the wood tilt under you and the sweat gathering under your arms. Think of Berta and the holes in the dirt.
“Don’t tell me I’m abandoning the farm when you’re the one running away from it,” you say. Remind him again about how much you do and have done since before Mom even died. How you took care of everything alone for days while he took her to chemo, how you played nurse when they sent her home to die in your living room. Tell him that, for fuck’s sake, you haven’t even had a boyfriend because you didn’t want to stress him out. Throw all the ammunition you have: the chipping paint, the holes in the pasture, the broken fence, the forgotten master suite, the promise he made to move on after she died and not let it consume him. Tell him it has consumed him. It’s consumed everything.
Don’t buckle when he sits forward and looks down. Ignore the tears streaming down your face as you yell one repressed truth after another. Feel them pile up on the table between you. You can’t move on because he treats the house like her tomb. You can’t have a life because she died and he’s still angry about it. Tell him going to school isn’t leaving forever. That there will be summer breaks when you’ll come back. That he can come visit if he wants for a weekend. Tell him, and yourself, that you will not feel guilty for making yourself better. You will not apologize for moving on.
Let yourself call him an idiot. Lazy. Selfish. Say he can’t even order paint.
Wipe your face with the bottom of your tank top. Take a breath and wait for him to look at you. Feel your knees shake, but don’t give in. Tell him that tomorrow you start fixing up the place. No more stalling or excuses. Tell him that Michael Martin will be starting as his new farm hand as soon as he can. You already talked to Phil. Don’t give him a choice. Tell him to step up. Tell him Corey is not getting anywhere near your farm.
Take another breath. Soften. Feel the weight leave your body. Walk upstairs before he can say anything.
Lock your bedroom door and put on your mother’s slippers. Sit on the side of your bed. Watch the sun dipping lower in the sky, just above the barn. Wonder where the day went. Wish it was a dream.
Watch your dad walk across the yard to let the horses back out for the night. Don’t feel guilty for making him do it with a bad arm. Watch the horses, one by one, run into the pasture. The yearlings buck around each other while the mares look for spots to graze and roll in the dry, warm dirt.
Follow your dad’s figure as he emerges from the barn and leans against the fence. Fuz comes to him and bumps his arm with a long nose. Your dad pats him and walks away. Fuz looks up at your window. You know he knows because horses understand better than people do.
Go over everything you said and the uncovered memories it brought up. Push your feet deep into the slippers and pull at the tattered lining with your toes. Wish your mom was here now more than ever. Look at the wall opposite you with the desk covered in college books and your new laptop. There’s a pile of boxed up appliances, a lamp, and a fan. Look at each of the pictures hung on the wall: your mom and dad’s first foal; your first blue ribbon; the day you got Fuz; your dad and you mucking stalls; your bald mom only months before she died. Look at the calendar. Count out twenty-four days until you leave.
Take out your phone. Open a note and start the list of what needs fixed. The barn. The holes. The fence. Your relationship.
Jump when he knocks. Look down at the slippers and think about kicking them off. Decide not to and open the door to your father standing like a defeated child after a lost game. He holds out his phone, a picture of a paint can with several colors under it on the screen.
“What shade do you think?” he says.
Take the phone and scroll through the reds. Maroon. Rose. Bright. Aged. It takes your eyes a moment to see the difference between them. Stop on a square, the one that looks like barns in movies and books. Show him.
“This one,” you say.
“We can do it this weekend,” he says. “I’ll call up Phil and get his boy here.”
Don’t resist the smile and let out the breath you’ve been holding for three years. Use his phone to order ten gallons of red paint and sealant. Click next day delivery.