Monday, November 30, 2009

Of Regret and A Night Running from the Law


"There ain’t nothin’ like regret to remind you you're alive"
Sheryl Crow


As your life reveals itself to you, you may find lucky choices mixed with regrets and the sting of the past sitting somewhere in that place in your middle body that only seems to exist for such emotions. They all led you to Now. But you may also find, like the peeling of an onion, that the layers that seemed to be truth and the layers that seemed to be nothing but mendacity may trade places -- this is the trick of time, I think.

Who’s to know if something as seemingly insignificant as my sitting home alone on the night of my high school prom changed the direction my life -- was that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in my life? All I know is that I did sit home alone that night and then? Then I went on with things. One year later I would spend a night running from the Law and while it felt like the roar of a lion instead of the flutter of insect wings, its only consequence would be to equip me with a story to tell and a realization that regrets can be fleeting.

There was a country club, somewhere in the wilds of Connecticut that was the place to skinny dip, after hours, in the summer, under the one light in the parking lot or the polluted moon. We knew it as the Jewish Country Club -- which only distinguishes it as a Club that many of us were not members of. The thing about Westport back then was that there were lots of clubs and while they didn’t say it in their bylaws, the memberships were doled out to whites only or gentiles only and this, I suppose, necessitated the need for clubs that made themselves equally exclusive by admitting only those who were excluded elsewhere. See? It was complicated to some but not to most -- and it was a civil way of handling a completely uncivil habit.

But the point here is not to expound on the history of uncivil rights in Connecticut -- the point is to identify this immaculate club with the 9 hole golf course, spacious club house, and most especially the swimming pool that drew a number of underage skinny dippers from various drinking establishments to partake of its waters.

The first time I swam in this pool was with a great number of people. We were home for the summer from college, our freshman year was over and done with, and as the bar that we were lingering in closed and sent us out into the hot summer parking lot, word got round that we were all going swimming. Now we lived in a beach town and the parking lot we were loitering in at 2 am was only minutes from the Long Island Sound, but it was rare for any of us townies to swim in the Sound at night. We were of the Jaws generation -- a night time swim in the beautiful green waters of the Sound only meant one thing to us kids -- Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss were going to be examining our remains sometime the next day and then the town would go bankrupt for the summer because all the tourists were too afraid to swim. So pool hopping was a big night time behavior of the young set in my town.

It was a nice pool, not Olympic sized, and it was advantageously near the parking lot, so there was a light that shone down on the pool. Just enough so we could find our way there and proceed to swim and party in a pleasant safe glow. There was something just so fine about skinny dipping on a summer’s night after drinking in a stuffy stupid bar with a bad dance floor all evening. The skinny dipping was an antidote to all the bullshit -- suddenly there we all were, just a bunch of kids with not a lot of attitude, and certainly none of our clothes and it cured whatever airs we were trying to put on.

That first night was fun and light and seemed to last for hours, although I am certain we all got our swim in hastily and then headed partially-clothed and barefooted back to our cars to make it home before the sun rose and our families took notice that we had been out all night. But it was that night that I met my first boy -- the boy who would stay by my side for the rest of that summer and would break my heart when it came time to return to college.

A few weeks later we returned to the pool, just the boy and me. We left the bar before all the others and agreed that the full moon was just right for skinny dipping at the Club. We were elated to find we had the place to ourselves. We parked, took off our shoes and padded down to the pool. We stripped to our bare naked selves and dove into the shimmering cool waters -- the moon seemed to be the only being on earth besides us. But five minutes in to the swim we were rudely reminded that we were not alone and that we were in fact breaking the law. A cop car pulled into the parking lot and two Westport policeman got out -- they shined their flashlights down on us and said “Okay, oughtta the pool!”

I looked at my boy and he looked at me. “I am NOT getting arrested naked. My grandmother will shoot me.” My boy agreed that getting arrested naked was a bad thing, “But what are we gonna do?”

“We’re gonna run.” There was a chain link fence that surrounded the pool - it had a gate on the parking lot side and another gate on the backside that led into the dark, to the wide open spaces of the golf course. We hoisted ourselves out of the pool as the cops continued to stand at the edge of the parking lot, we looked up at them as though we were headed their way. I looked at our pile of clothes next to the gate that was closest to the cops -- those clothes seemed a million miles away, there was no way we could grab them and get out the back gate before the cops came down the hill. We were going to have to abandon our clothes and run naked. We emerged from the pool and stood facing our enemy for just a moment and then we spun around and sprinted for the back gate. “WHOA WHOA WHOA! Where are you two going?!”

We blasted through the back gate and disappeared onto the golf course. My boy was tall and lanky and I was little and lanky and we ran so fast our feet never seemed to touch the ground. The moon was bright and we knew we had to stick to the sand traps and the forested edges of the green. The flashlights were bouncing behind us. The cops were shouting at us but they weren’t gaining on us -- they were slow and fat and they had clothes on. We dove under a thicket and huddled on our bellies -- I felt like a rabbit, all out of breath and tingling with fear. The cops were getting closer, we held our breath and each other as they passed us. We waited until they disappeared on the moonlit horizon and then we crawled back out. “Can we make it back to the pool and get our clothes?” I asked my boy.

“I don’t know - they are going to circle back soon.”

We contemplated staying in the thicket, but it was damn thorny in there. We agreed we needed to get our clothes and get to the car. So we took off and ran back to the pool. We got to the pool and picked up our clothes and then ran for the car, but just as we got to the car, the cops showed up. They were running up the hill from the pool, their bellies swinging with handcuffs and holsters and billy clubs. My boy looked at me, “We’re fucked now!” but we weren’t because I looked toward the club house and saw an escape route. The club house was made up of two large buildings that were joined together by this long arching walkway which led out to a patio that overlooked the golf course. The moon cast this beautiful light down on the patio. We threw our clothes down and ran for the club house. The cops shouting, “HEY HEY HEY! STOP!” But we didn’t stop. We dashed through that echoing tunnel -- again the light from the flashlights danced all around us. We didn’t slow down as we crossed the patio and jumped a two foot stone wall that turned out to have nothing but nothingness on the other side. We were flying through the darkness, my naked boy and naked me and finally, we hit the ground. We rolled and rolled and scraped our knees and rose back up on our feet. “You okay?”

“I’m okay. You okay?”

“Shit!”

We looked back to see the wall we had jumped off of -- it seemed to be twice as tall as us and the flashlights were coming. We took off again and turned as we ran to see the cops jump off the wall and fall and fall and fall. We heard them crashing to the ground and swearing, “JESUS CHRIST!”

I was certain we might have killed one of them and if not, I thought for sure they would kill us when they caught us.

We ran and ran down this long straightaway that by day was milled about on by golfers and their caddies. The cops were up and running again and we veered hard to the left side, the Sound side of the course. I could smell the salt water and see it shimmer through the trees and beyond that were the tiny lights that flickered from Long Island and the tip of Manhattan. We found another thorny thicket and dove like foxes underneath it. Now we were tired. And we were bashed up. The mosquitoes were sucking our blood and the cicadas were laughing at us. My boy held me as our chests heaved and collapsed -- there wasn’t enough air for us at that moment. The cops continued down the middle of the course. They were jogging and swearing. Their lights were sweeping across the greens and the sand traps and peeking into the thickets...we pushed farther back into the thicket and held our faces down...we couldn’t let them see our eyes.

What was going through my mind as I lay their naked and bleeding and itching? I was determined not to get caught at that point. I knew that it would be the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to me. I saw my grandmother’s face and she was furious with me. I saw the little paragraph in the Westport News Police Report and it explained how we ran half the night naked from two of Wesport’s Finest. How we were handcuffed and brought to the station without any clothes and how we stood in front of the magistrate at 4 am to be charged and sent to a holding cell. I shuddered at the idea that our great family friend Mac, who was a former and highly decorated Westport Policeman and was now the Chief of Police in Wilton, my boy’s hometown, would call up my grandmother and ask her what kind of delinquent I had become? He would say something about how he taught me how to swim and now? Now I was a hardened naked criminal.

We laid there under the thicket for a long time. The cops kept running back and forth -- we could hear their radios squawk occasionally. My boy and I began to wonder why they didn’t call for any back up? We decided they were too embarrassed to call for help. Who would believe that they had spent the past four hours chasing two naked kids around a nine hole golf course. Maybe they just wanted the glory of arresting us all on their own.

And just like kids, we didn’t think past our next few minutes. We wanted to get back to the car, but it wasn’t safe to make a move. But then the signs of morning started and this brought a whole new element to our being naked fugitives from justice -- the light of day would shine down on us and there would be no hiding. The birds began to sing and that first finger of day light was beginning to glow and the moon had left us...he’d had enough of us for one night. And then something amazing happened. The cops gave up. We saw them trundle up the center of the golf course and disappear around the club house. We crawled out of the thicket and ran slowly along the edge of the greens back towards the club house. We could see the headlights of the police car make one grand broadcast across the parking lot like the lights of a Hollywood premier and then we saw the Law’s red tail lights disappear out onto the main road. They were gone.

We made our way to the car in bluish light of morning. We no longer ran strong and tall, we were huddled, with arms crossed, ashamed and bloodied. We were relieved that none of the Club staff had arrived yet. We found our clothes right where we had left them -- next to the car on the pavement. We scooped them up and got in the car. My boy started up the car and we drove down the street where we proceeded to get dressed. We couldn’t believe it was over, that we were just going to go home now.

The sun was shining when I walked in the kitchen door. My grandmother was sitting at the kitchen table. She was furious. “Where have you been all night? Look at you! You’re a mess!” And I was a mess. I was covered in mosquito bites and bloody scratches and my hair was filthy with briars. I probably looked like I had been wrestling with a bob cat all night.

“You don’t want to know Mom.”

“Yes I do. Where have you been?”

“Please don’t make me tell you. Just be happy I am home, okay?” I just walked right by her and went upstairs. I went to bed for an hour or two and then I went right back out. I drove down to the beach and there I soaked my battle scars in the salt water of the Long Island Sound for the rest of the day. I never did tell my grandmother what happened and she never asked about it again.

Monday, November 23, 2009

No Harm No Fowl

Winslow Homer's The Sick Chicken

Although it is the Week of the Turkey, I have a bone to pick about Chickens. This morning’s News and Observer ran an article with a catchy, but alarming headline: In a Cary backyard, death swoops down.

Seems a nice older couple, who keep a small number of chickens in their suburban yard lost a rooster to a Falconer and his hawk. The Falconer was hunting rabbits with his hawk in a nearby meadow and the hawk took the couple’s rooster instead of a rabbit. The Falconer graciously went to the couple’s home, apologized for his hawk’s trespass and offered a handsome sum of $45.00 as compensation for the rooster. His goodwill was rudely rebuffed by the devastated couple -- they ordered him off their property and reported him to the police. They told the paper “this sort of hunting should not be allowed anymore!” and backed up their claim for banning Falconry by saying it belongs in rural areas, not residential areas such as theirs. But their argument falls apart when the article reveals that keeping chickens is banned throughout the city of Cary and this nice couple received a special exemption permit to keep chickens in their yard. Hmmmm...too surburban for practicing Falconry but rural enough for keeping chickens.

Frankly, I think the hunter, who had a proper permit to hunt within the city limits, should be commended for apologizing and offering to pay for the rooster. This innocent hunting mistake is not comparable in any way to some of the gun hunting tragedies that have happened in recent times. Obviously he felt bad -- he and his hawk made a mistake and that is the rub here -- it was a mistake. Falconers practice an ancient and beautiful form of hunting. I imagine a Falconer to be much more in tune with his bird than a man who keeps hens for the sake of eggs. I find nothing wrong with hunters who hunt responsibly -- especially ones who are honest when they have made a mistake, be it with their hawk or a gun.

But this is the kind of behavior I am beginning to expect from Urban Chicken Keepers (UCKs). This article is one in a handful of stories I have read lately about the good intentions of city people keeping chickens gone wrong. It is admirable that people want to keep chickens so as to have fresh eggs and perhaps teach their children about the realities of where their food comes from. But something is amiss with this growing trend. Unfortunately, there seems to be far too many UCKs who are totally unrealistic about keeping fowl. Fowl are livestock and they are vulnerable to any number of predators and disease and people who keep them should understand that reality. But UCKs aren’t buying it -- they are hellbent on teaching us that chickens can be pets and livestock all at the same time.

Last month, The New York Times ran a story about the state of Urban Chicken Keeping in Berkeley, California -- take note my imaginary readers of San Jose. Seems Chicken Husbandry is the latest and greatest trend to hit the city. In a city overrun with vegetarians, chickens now abound in back yards and apartment courtyards. I have no problem with vegetarians, as I practiced not eating meat for over a decade. But the problem with vegetarians owning chickens, aside from the obvious murky philosophical details, is that they don’t want to kill them. So when chickens become unwanted in Berkeley, they are showing up in over-crowded animal shelters to be re-homed. The shelters don’t have the resources to care for all these homeless chickens. I’m going to get emails for this but here goes -- my solution, of course, is to kill the chickens and feed them to the homeless dogs. There, I said it and I feel better for it.

UCKs complain that their neighbors don’t like their chickens. They say their chickens have been poisoned and strangled and stolen. UCKs cannot understand why people don’t love the sound of their rooster at 5 am as much as they do. UCKs are under assault and they are mystified by the hoards of people showing up at town council meetings demanding that chickens and roosters be driven out of their neighborhoods.

With that said, I want to tell you about Frenchy. She belonged to my neighbor Elena, who is an extraordinary chicken keeper. Elena and I could be said to live in the country, although, its beginning to not look like the country so much anymore. We live five minutes outside of the city limits of Hillsborough, NC, so we get all the benefits of town without the bothers of the same. I have learned everything I know about chickens from Elena. I first met Elena through a riding buddy and not long after we met and discovered we were neighbors, Elena called me to ask if I might Chicken Sit for her while she went on a trip to the mountains. I admitted right away that I had never taken care of chickens. And Elena said I had been recommended with the highest references from someone who’s horses I had taken care of. I told her “Horses are one thing, chickens are another thing entirely! For one thing, I am not afraid of horses, but I am afraid of chickens.” Elena reassured me and invited me over to meet her 12 hens, her one teenage rooster, and her turkey. I spent two hours learning the ins and outs of her tiny operation. She was impressed that her turkey liked me. She could tell because he didn’t display his feathers when I came near -- and his head didn’t go all red...these were signs she told me, that he might attack me. I was surprisingly comfortable with the turkey and while she had a proper name for him, I began to call him Gonzo after the Muppets character who sleazily managed a flock of performing hens. Elena told me that Gonzo had once had a female turkey, but she ate her, and so Gonzo spent his days leering at her hens. Gonzo was clearly a pet and not headed for the oven. But the teenage rooster was headed for a culinary future.

Elena is as realistic about her chickens as no UCK could ever be. All roosters in Elena’s yard meet one fate and that is the knife. She doesn’t tolerate the noise they make and the trouble they cause. As for her hens, Elena is very loving to these girls. She calls them “My Girls!” and she sometimes sits with them at night in the coop just to hear them coo -- she strokes them and admires their feathers. But she has no compunction about killing them and eating them. Two of her stand out chickens are gone now -- one was named Sister and the other Frenchy. I noticed Frenchy the first day I went to Elena’s house. Frenchy looked like none of the other hens. She was the most delicate rose color -- her feathers looked like something you would see adorning a whore in a Degas painting. And she had pantaloons! These fabulous layers of sunset pink feathers that covered her legs. Frenchy was all girl and she talked too much. Sister was the big girl in the coop, she went everywhere first and everyone got out of her way, but she was quiet about it. Frenchy made a lot of announcements -- open this gate, give me that tortilla, i’m going to sit on that egg now!

And sitting on eggs was Frenchy’s problem. Elena told me Frenchy wanted nothing more than to be a mother hen, “Frenchy is the broodiest hen I have ever owned, she is constantly sitting on the eggs and ruining them. You have to watch Frenchy!”

And so Elena went to the Mountains and I was initiated as a Chicken Sitter. I made all sorts of mistakes -- I went too early in the evening to close the coop. I assumed that because it was dusk, the hens would be roosting. Nope, if there was any daylight at all, those girls were still outside. I let them all out of the coop one morning into their generously sized pen and then went out the gate to go around the back of the coop to begin cleaning it. I assumed they had all gone out the other door, but when I opened the back door, they all came streaming out. Thus began my initiation as a Chicken Herder. Elena taught me to hold my arms out, almost as though I were practicing Tai Chi and to gently wave my arms as though I were the wind and the chickens were the sea. Never chase chickens, that is a futile exercise. Scoop the air around the chickens and they will go the way you want them to. Its probably the most zen thing I have ever learned, the herding of chickens. And most importantly it avoids the need to pick them up -- some people are fine with picking up chickens, I am not one of those people.

Two days before Elena returned, the teenage rooster disappeared. The hens lived in one pen and Gonzo and the teenage rooster lived in another. They could peck at each other through the fence, but that was the only contact they could have. Gonzo and the rooster were not shut in at night, they had a small roof overhang that they roosted in when the sun went down and Elena insisted that they would be fine. But I found the rooster gone and Gonzo in a somewhat hysterical state over his missing friend. I decided that Gonzo would be calmer as soon as I let the hens out of the coop and I was right -- his feathers laid down and his face went blue instead of red as Sister and Frenchy and the rest of the cabaret girls sauntered down their little ramp into the light of the day. I couldn’t help but think of Can Can girls when the hens emerged from the coop each morning -- it was just a comical sight to me.

So with the rooster missing I was presented with a dilemma. Should I call Elena? I decided against it. She was coming home the next day and I had high hopes for his return. There was no evidence of a murder in the yard...no feathers strewn in the grass. I fed everyone their grain and tortillas, and cleaned the coop. I came back at lunch time and looked for the rooster. He was still gone. I was beginning to think that maybe he had been carried away in the night by an owl.

I returned after sunset to find all the hens convened in some sort of grand meeting. Gonzo was pacing up and down the fence and his voice was more hysterical than it had been earlier in the day when he announced that his rooster companion was missing. I turned my flashlight on to The Girls and approached them. They were very intent on something in their midst, but they scattered when I waved my arm at them. I couldn’t for the life of me think of what it was that would keep them out in this darkness, but I found out immediately. The remains of the teenage rooster lay in front of me - he was nothing but a rib cage with tail feathers. They had picked him clean.

I ran back to my truck and called my husband. I told him to come right away. “You have to help me clean this up, I can’t do it all alone.” He was not thrilled with the idea of visiting the scene of a chicken murder, but he came and gave me moral support. The rooster had returned that evening, but the unfortunate thing got in the pen with The Girls and not with Gonzo. They took no time in killing him. Elena returned the next day and I apologized to her for the loss of the rooster. She apologized to me for having to see how brutal The Girls could be. She said she was just sorry that they ate him before she could! She offered me a handful of eggs to take home, I declined. I was off eggs for a long time after that. Elena explained that the rooster was probably injured when he returned from his gallivanting and The Girls smelled blood on him and that was all it took for them to murder him. Elena was matter of fact about it. I was traumatized.

But Elena called me again this spring and asked me to Chicken Sit again, she said things should go fine, no roosters this time. But when I went to her house to get the key and my instructions for the week, she had a surprise for me. “Frenchy is finally a mother!” Elena had lost too many eggs to Frenchy’s brooding habits, so she went to the feed store and bought five cotton ball sized Bitties for Frenchy. She set the Bitties up in a dog crate in the sewing room at the front of her house and put Frenchy in there with the little yellow-as-the-sun peeps. Frenchy took possession immediately, there was no question in her mind that the Bitties were her flesh and blood.

I was so happy for Frenchy -- there she sat in the dog crate with the Bitties neatly tucked under her rosey petticoats. Frenchy purred and wiggled. These were her children and she couldn’t be more content. “Do you mind taking care of her and the little ones all week?” Elena asked as I admired Frenchy. I told her I could do it, but I had one question, “Frenchy’s not going to turn on the little things is she? I mean, if one of them tells her that she’s not really their mama, she’s not going to retaliate and eat them is she? Cause I don’t think I can handle another murder.” Elena told me to just make sure there was plenty of food and water in the cage and to keep it clean. She assured me no harm would come to the Bitties.

You cannot believe how much Bitties can grow in seven days. They went from being Easter Basket material to near pullet-sized in the time I cared for them. I wondered if Frenchy was shooting them up with growth hormones. Their wing feathers were emerging by the end of the week! Each morning when I walked in the door I would find Frenchy walking around the cage with the Bitties riding on her back, which became more entertaining as they got bigger. On my final morning, I found all the Bitties were riding Frenchy except for one. This Bittie was standing on top of the cylindrical feeder and he was flapping his wings and crowing! “I think I found the rooster.” I told myself.

Elena returned the next day and I was happy to report that all the Girls, and the Bitties, and Frenchy and Gonzo had lived through the week. I told her of the rooster and she said there was no way to sex the Bitties that early, but lo, she found him crowing two days later and called me. “Wow! You were right!” she said. I felt as though I had passed some great chicken exam by my observation of the little rooster.

Frenchy died this summer, not long after her Bitties were grown. She was close to eight years old and perhaps motherhood satisfied her and tired her so much that she decided to let go. Elena told me that Sister dove into a terrible depression after Frenchy’s passing and so Elena did what she thought best - she ate her. I thought that was a fitting end for Sister -- she had given years of service as the head Girl and when she could no longer give eggs due to her ennui, she gave her body to Elena’s kitchen.

I want to finish with this clipping from The New York Times which I have kept for over 10 years:

Hawk Eats Pupil's Pet Chick

Lompoc, Calif., March 7 (AP) -- As frightened pupils watched helplessly during recess on Friday, a hawk swooped down and grabbed a chick that was being raised by a fifth grade class at Los Berros school, flew to the top of a nearby telephone pole and ate the pet, which had been named Peep Jr. A student teacher, Lori Stitch, said that there was no time to shield the children and that as a result youngsters "learned about the food chain." Ms. Stitch said she regretted that Peep Jr. "Never knew another chicken."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Holidays are Coming


My grandfather used to say “New Years is for amateurs.” Pop was serious about his drinking and he had no time for people who drank only on occasion. He was especially suspicious of Teetotalers. He considered them furtive. To Pop, a Teetotaler was unable to drink for fear they might reveal their true selves and therefore could never be trusted as a friend. My grandmother shared this opinion and every once in a while I would hear her describe someone in an uncharacteristically quiet tone, “He’s a Teetotaler, you know...” as though she were revealing the darkest possible secret about this individual. I am certain this was all born of the fact that my grandfather’s father lost his fortune due to Prohibition. In addition to his liquor business being shut down by the law, my great-grandfather Glynn was driven out of the Catholic Church after a fellow parishioner caught him with his hand firmly stuck in the tithing box. It was his intention to push his charitable donation further into the box, but it served only to appear as theft. Now he had no livelihood due to the Teetotaling menace and his Church had disowned him. There was only one thing to do -- drink himself to death.

Oddly enough, my grandfather was born on New Years Day. He was the first baby born in Boston, so the story goes, at 12:01 am on January 1, 1905. His mother was given a cake for bringing Thomas Burke Glynn into the world at such an auspicious time. And it seems that the significant dates of my grandfather’s life would all fall around the holidays. He married my grandmother on December 26, 1936. The 26th of December, of course, is known as Boxing Day and he used to quip that it was the most appropriate day for his union with my grandmother as “it had been a fightin’ match ever since!” My grandmother’s birthday was December 6th and my mother was born on December 7th, five years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. But most significantly for Pop was that his mother died on Christmas Day in the early 1930s. This cast a shadow over Christmas for him for the rest of his life.

The holidays are coming and I am preparing, as I do every year, to hunker down and get through it. It is most regrettable to me that the Holiday season now begins with hunting season in early November. It is that much longer now that I have to thwart the funk that overtakes me during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mine is a complicated funk though, because I have such ambiguous feelings toward this time of year. There is the side of me that is joyous with the idea of making Christmas cards and cooking on Thanksgiving Day. I cannot resist Charlie Brown’s Christmas and Gene Shepherd’s Christmas Story. I can barely contain myself when I hear Elvis sing Blue Christmas. And probably my most favorite Christmas show? The claymation classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- it goes deep for me, into a place of my childhood that still exists in another dimension of time, I am certain of it.

But hunker down I must, despite the side of me that enjoys this time of year. I am a child of divorce and the holidays were an extremely odd time for me as a child. It was decision making time for me. Who will I spend Thanksgiving with? Who will I spend Christmas with? And I didn’t just have one Thanksgiving dinner, I got to have at least two, because the parent who didn’t spend Thanksgiving with me, made up for their lost day, by recreating it at a later date. The same happened with Christmas, sometimes the recreation of which came way past the 12 days of Christmas. My grandmother was very traditional in that she put the tree up on Christmas Eve and took it down on Epiphone, every year, like clockwork. But occasionally my father, who lived hours away from me, would request that the tree stay up just a bit longer, so that he could visit me and put my presents under the now tired looking tannenbaum, whose needles were tinkling to the floor. She was annoyed by this request. And me? I just thought it was strange, because to me, it wasn’t Christmas anymore.

So I have this biological time bomb that goes off every year when the holidays begin to loom. Although I am grown, I feel this pressure somewhere under my right shoulder blade that tells me I need to make a decision. Of course, I don’t have to decide on my holiday whereabouts at all anymore. I am not obligated to anyone to make a holiday appearance. I can stay right here, right at home and choose not to see anyone. But this feeling doesn’t go away until New Year’s Day and it drives me to make certain efforts to participate in the festivities, even though I would be happy to let it all slide. Some years, I ignore the pressure quite valiantly, but there are other years where it manages to overwhelm me. And because I have no children of my own, because my family has remained quite small and is getting smaller as time passes, the pressure comes not from within, but from my surroundings. I watch friends go through the intense maneuverings of this time of year and I see them look at me curiously, “Why doesn’t she have the same horrendous holiday schedule that I have?” They are perplexed by the simplicity of my holiday experience. I envy their being overwhelmed by family and perhaps they envy my freedom.

While growing up my mother instilled in me the beneficence of buying the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. You know what I am talking about, the little sad tree on the back of the lot that no one wants. Charlie Brown saw something of himself in that tree and he defied the fakery and the commercialism he saw in Christmas by giving the pathetic tree a home. The children of the Christmas pageant scorned him for buying such a waste of a tree, but it was Linus who recognized the import of the tree. He saw the Christian lesson in adopting a tree that would only end up on the trash heap. And lo, a Christmas miracle occurred, as the Peanuts gang began to love the tree, it became a shining beacon of Christmas.

My mother applies this idea of buying the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree to almost all facets of her life and I follow this “religion”. We adopt the saddest of dogs, one’s with behavioral and physical flaws, we take on horses that are not quite sound or of Show Quality. And we do the same with people, although we are less apt to forgive people as much as we do animals and Christmas Trees. We have slightly higher expectations of the people we surround ourselves with, but they get enormous breaks from us just the same.

When it comes to Christmas trees, it doesn’t always have to be the smallest most pathetic tree. I spent Christmas on my mother’s farm in Southern Pines, NC back in 1982. I was a senior in high school and it was a year in which I decided to spend the whole vacation with my mother, right through New Years Day. I left my father in the cold that year. My mother and stepfather were planning on having a party on Christmas Eve, a “payback” party, one of those parties we all have at one time or another, when we gather together all the people we owe a night out to. My mother’s house was a wonderfully small affair, with only one bedroom upstairs in a loft and an open first floor that had practically no walls between the kitchen and the living area. But despite being small, it boasted a living room that soared 25 feet or so to the roof with the loft dangling above it, only accessible by a spiral steel staircase, the kind you see in inexpensive Greenwich Village lofts. The backside of the house was sunny with French doors and windows above, very unusual for now stuffy Town and Country Southern Pines.

On the morning of Christmas Eve my mother and I drove downtown to find a Christmas tree. We went to a lot near the railroad tracks and they had a large selection of very fat fir trees, none that fit my mother’s requirement for something scrawny and in need of charity. But at the very back of the lot was a 20 foot fur that stood as proud as anything you would see in Rockefeller Center. We walked back an stood under the boughs of the great tree. There was a tag tied to one of the lower boughs and there were several prices listed. Each price had been crossed out leaving a price at the bottom of the tag of ten dollars. The tree had started its illustrious career at $350! My mother looked at me and I looked at her. We had found our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. The tree man came over, “You ladies like that tree?”

“Yes, yes we do. Its so beautiful!” My mother was fingering the price tag.

“and Big. Nobody wants this big of a tree. Last time I buy a twenty foot tree!” The man said as he craned he neck to look to the top of the tree.

“Can you deliver the tree to my farm? Its too big to get in my truck.”

“We wouldn’t normally do that, but for you, I’ll do it. ”

We paid him ten dollars for the tree and ten dollars to bring it to the farm.

My mother and I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Ed about the tree. We busted in the door and all the dogs came running and Ed was watching football. This was his lunch break. They had alot of race horses in the barn back then, as many as 20 yearlings and he and my mother did all their own stalls. The horses had the day off that day, because we were having a party. There was housework to do, food to be made. We were expecting 15 or so people for drinks that evening, and there was no time to work the yearlings.

“Ed, we found the most marvelous tree!” My mother started moving some furniture out of the corner she planned to put it in.

“And where is the tree? Do you need me to get it out of the truck.” Ed said this while his eyes remained glued to the football.

“No, no, its being delivered, they are on their way with it.”

“Delivered? When did we get the money to have trees delivered? Why couldn’t you and Shannon just put it in the truck?”

“Because its 20 feet high!”

“Great Scott!”

“Nobody wanted it. It was too big!”

“I don’t want it.” Ed got up and started to look at the area my mother was clearing. “And what are you going to decorate it with? We don’t have decorations for a tree that large!” My mother looked at me and I looked at her. We hadn’t considered that.

“Oh no, I don’t know. I guess I’ll need to go back to town and buy lots of tinsel!”

But suddenly Ed smiled. Ed is brilliant really, he’s an old stunt man from Hollywood, and he has a world of experience like no other person I know. “I know how to decorate it. We’ll decorate it with snow!”

“What?” My mother was confused.

“Ivory Snow! You and the kid go to the grocery store right away and buy as many boxes of powdered Ivory Snow as you can get. And tinsel, lots of silver tinsel. No lights, we won’t need lights, just one lamp to back light the tree.”

“What the heck are we gonna do with Ivory Snow flakes?” I piped up the only way a teenager could pipe up.

“Just go with your mother!”

The tree was in the house when we got home. Ed and the guys had pulled it in through the French doors and unfurled its boughs from its burlap wrapping only to figure out they had no way to stand the thing upright! They went out into the barn and found a two by four which Ed sawed in half. He nailed the two pieces to the bottom of the tree making a large X. It was slightly unwieldy. My mother looked at it askance. “Don’t you think we ought to secure it with some rope? I would hate for a drunk to bring it down on all of us tonight!”

“Jesus Sandy! Now you have regrets?”

“No, its gorgeous!” My mother and I started taking the boxes of Ivory Snow out of the grocery bags.

“Four boxes? You could only get four boxes?”

“Ed, we’re lucky we got that, nobody uses powdered Ivory Snow anymore. So what are we going to do with all this?”

“Kid, go get me bucket in the barn.” Ed was opening the boxes an rifling through the kitchen drawers. “Sandy, where’s the egg beater?”

So I brought Ed the bucket and he rips open the boxes of soap and pours them into the bucket. He puts the bucket in the sink and adds some water, not alot of water, but a little at a time so as to make a paste. “Kid, get the tinsel. And see those scissors? Start cutting up the tinsel into tiny pieces, I mean tiny, like confettI”

“So Ed, what are we doing here?”

“We’re making snow a la the Waldorf Astoria!” Ed’s father was the manager of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel while Ed was growing up. Like the anti-Eloise, Ed grew up in the hotel among the staff and the great food and the famous visitors. “We used to have Christmas trees all over the hotel at Christmas time and decorations were very expensive and fragile and tended to get stolen. One of the staff told us that he and his wife decorated their tree with Ivory Snow during the Depression, because that’s all they had...all they had was soap. So we used to mix great vats of it and decorate the trees all over the hotel with it. You’re not cutting the tinsel small enough, real tiny, and put it in the bucket.” Ed used the egg beater on the paste to whip it up into a fluffy tinselly concoction that looked like meringue. It looked good enough to eat.

Once he made the first batch he told me we had to work fast or the snow would harden in the bucket. Ed got a ladder and he worked at the top of the tree and I worked at the bottom. “Now spread the snow on top of the boughs, just like snow would fall onto a tree. No too much, or it weighs the boughs down and the whole thing will droop!”

So we worked all afternoon, making snow in the bucket and spreading it on the tree. My mother would come out every once in a while from the kitchen and make exclamations of joy.

Evening fell, the horses were enjoying their Christmas Eve mashes and the guests began to arrive. Ed and Sandy and I had washed all the residual snow from the floor and swept up the tinsel. The guests were astonished by the tree, especially my godmother Ginnie who hailed from Savannah. She was the Master of the Foxhounds and owned several thousand acres on which my mother and everyone in Southern Pines hunted and rode their horses. “My goodness,” she said in her Savannah drawl, “That has got to be the most spectacular Christmas tree I have ever seen!” And it was the most spectacular Christmas tree. Its stood proud and covered in freshly fallen snow which caught the light of the party candles and reflected in the ice cubes in the party goers glasses of cheer.

We partied late into the evening, with stories of race horses and fox hunting and some of the adventurous things my mother had done when she was young and some of the insane things Ed had done in Hollywood. We stayed up so late that although the guests had arrived on Christmas Eve, they departed on Christmas morning.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Of Tanya and Twanya and a Barn Full of Polo Ponies...

I watched Conrack the other night and it got me to thinking. Conrack is based on Pat Conroy’s book The Water is Wide. I've seen the movie three times. I haven’t read the book, but a friend of mine, who is a teacher a Georgia, has read it. He hasn't seen the movie. So it goes with movies made from books. Its a story about teaching. Its a story about racism. However, its the racial aspects of the movie that reminded me of Tanya and Twanya.

Tanya and Twanya were twins. They were black. And I attended my first three years of elementary school with them. They were bussed from Bridgeport, Connecticut along with a small group of their neighborhood kids to attend all white Bedford Elementary School in Westport, Connecticut. It was 1971 and while our parents, and in my case, my grandparents, were very aware of the intricacies of bussing, the kids were oblivious. We were just kids and the world was new...we didn’t know that it was a big deal to have this bus make that long drive from Bridgeport to Westport everyday, hell, we didn’t even know where Bridgeport was.

As we grew older though, we learned very quickly that Bridgeport was poor and black and we never traveled there. As teenagers we called it “Bree Po” and made jokes that we didn’t fully understand. I remember being confused when my grandmother, who came from a very wealthy family that lost it all in the Crash of ‘29, told me her family’s winter home was in Bridgeport. Their summer home was in Greens Farms. It was a grand house that faced the Long Island Sound and was surrounded by a beautiful marsh near Burying Hill Beach. But when the leaves would turn in the fall, they would close up that house, load everything up on carriages and move to a smaller, but equally grand house in Bridgeport. The house staff would carefully pack the china and the silver and my grandmother and her five siblings would see their toys and books and clothes put into great trunks. They would make the 25 mile trip away from the shore to hunker down for the Connecticut winter in a more urban setting, one that my grandmother assured me was not populated by “colored” people. I asked my grandmother to take me to Bridgeport to see the winter home. She said it was gone, just like Red Oaks, the summer home, which had mysteriously burned down in 1968. There was a part of me that didn’t believe my grandmother, who was the most honest person I ever knew. There was just no way she was going to drive me to Bridgeport. It wasn’t a place that we belonged.

You know who came from Bridgeport? Robert Mitchum came from Bridgeport. P.T. Barnum came from Bridgeport. And so did Hogan’s Heroes’ Bob Crane. That alone made me want to see Bridgeport. But you know what? I never did. I never saw Bridgeport, only on a map and only as an exit off of I-95.

Tanya and Twanya were mean. Twanya was the meaner of the two if you want to split hairs. I imagined that when they fought amongst themselves, Twanya always beat Tanya. I learned to tell them apart not long after meeting them in my first grade class. They both wore glasses, but Twanya had a lazy eye and her features were slightly finer than Tanya’s. They were very beautiful and always wore matching clothes. But they were mean. If you glanced at them in the cafeteria or on the playground they would lean into your face and utter their trademark threat, “I ain’t playin’ with you girl!” and that was it, you were marked for a beating. The beating didn’t necessarily come at the moment of your trespass, it usually came when you were least expecting it, when you had forgotten that you had even invited the beating.

I was the kind of kid who got beat up a lot. Not just by Tanya and Twanya, but lots of kids, girls and boys beat me up throughout school. I know, I know, you’re smiling right now, you’re not surprised that I invited beatings as a child. I was small and blonde and really hyper, but quietly hyper. My mind was constantly reeling with thoughts and ideas, as it still does today, and I looked at people. I would stare at them and try to figure them out. And I was weird. I would go off on the playground by myself and play with my imaginary friend Indian Girl. Indian Girl and I had long conversations, with me on the ground and her, most of the time, up in a tree. She lived in the tree outside my bedroom window at home and my grandmother would catch me talking to her or reading books to her. Mom was very disapproving of my friendship with Indian Girl. She believed it was a true sign of insanity. But Indian Girl faded away eventually. I didn’t need her anymore.

So Tanya and Twanya would stalk me, somewhere beyond the swings and the kickball field. They would chase me and when they caught me, they beat the crap out me. Once they trapped me in this large concrete pipe -- the school had three or four of them on the playground for us to play in. The pipes were painted in bright colors and they were great refuges to sit in with friends and talk about the questions of life. But on a winter's day Tanya and Twanya chased me into one of those pipes and I will never forget the echo of their voices. Tanya at one end, Twanya at the other and me in the middle. “We ain’t playin’ with you girl!” and they crept in and pummeled me. I never told on them. How could I? The beating I would receive for tattling would certainly bring me close to death, so I just kept my mouth shut. And I witnessed the beatings of other children. Tanya and Twanya did not discriminate in their beatings -- they beat girls and boys, black and white. We were all terrified of them.

They did get caught once though. I had received the kiss of death from Tanya in art class -- there I was scribbling away with these marvelous crayons Mr. Clark used to give us and I must have looked funny and Tanya whispered in my ear, “I ain’t playin’ with you.” Mr. Clark was our art teacher, my first real live hippie. He had long black hair that he kept in a pony tail and a handlebar mustache. He collected Clark Bar wrappers and he had a terrible temper...which is very un-hippie like, but I guess the Westport brat scene would just drive him over the edge sometimes. He would snap like twig and beat our desks with a yard stick and heaven help you if your hands were in the way. But he gave us all these magical crayons -- they were the size and shape of a domino and they were made of melted crayons of every color, so that when you laid them to paper, they made rainbows.

Later in the day, I was in the cafeteria, a place I hated more than anything in those days. I hated the crowd of kids, the food, the noise...I always felt vulnerable in the cafeteria, a feeling that continued through high school. I set my tray on a table and proceeded to sit down, but as I sat, my chair was swiftly pulled out from under me. I hit the floor and felt a sting that zanged right up my spine and continued out my eyes. I turned to see Twanya holding my chair and smiling at me. But her smile was wiped cleanly from her face by Mr. Clark, who was on lunch duty. He saw the whole thing. I was sent to the school nurse, who called my grandmother. Next thing you know I was in the doctor’s office and they determined that I had bruised my coccyx bone, I was mortified and what was worse was that my grandmother started asking all these questions about the girl who had hurt me. Suddenly the adults were involved and this was never a good thing. Tanya and Twanya continued their beatings, but under the cover of shrubs in the playground and in the back stairwell of the school. I played dumb when my grandmother’s questions came, “I don’t know who that girl is. She never hurt me before...”

I became best friends with one of the Bridgeport girls in the third grade. He name was Sheryl and we met on the playground every day. She knew Tanya and Twanya and wasn’t afraid of them. She didn’t fight them, she just ignored them. T and T were in another class in third grade and so I hardly ever saw them, they were just like a bad dream at that point and Sheryl seemed to be some sort of protection for me. Maybe T and T moved on to other things by then, their bullying days perhaps were over.

One spring day I asked Sheryl if she wanted to come to my house after school. I had a pony I wanted her to meet and maybe my grandfather would let me take Sheryl for a ride. Sheryl said she couldn’t come to my house because she had to take the bus home. She became quiet. I said no problem, my grandmother would drive her home. Sheryl balked again and said she would have to ask her mother. When I went home that afternoon I asked my grandmother if my friend Sheryl could come over after school one day. “Who’s Sheryl?” I explained that she was a girl in my class, that she took the bus from Bridgeport, but couldn’t she come over and then we could drive her home before dinner? My grandmother said this wouldn’t be possible. And when I saw Sheryl the next day, she told me that her mother said no to my plan. I was completely perplexed by the whole thing. But I understood later on. You see? Bridgeport was another world, it was an island, and the only place we were to mix our worlds was in school.

Bedford El closed down in 1974 and so all of us who were attending the three story old fashioned school would be divided up around the district into nicer and more modern facilities. I never saw Tanya or Twanya or Sheryl again. I might have changed schools, but something remained the same. You could count the number of black students in the school on one hand. This trend continued through junior high school. By the time we got to Staples High School, you could count them on two hands. There weren’t enough blacks in my school to cause racial tension, but I know there was racism and they were so outnumbered that I cannot fathom how they must have felt. They were prominent students and memorable and good characters in my memory and some were my friends -- outgoing achievers academically and in sports, they seemed happy enough to be with all of us white kids, but I am certain they had days when they hated us.

But here’s something important to know about Westport. It was a hard place for almost all of us growing up there. It was a wealthy town and it weighed heavily on all of us with its expectations. We lived among CEOs, scholars, and famous actors and actresses and renowned writers and artists. Westport was infested with Somebodys.

So even though the black kids were feeling weird about being black, there were plenty of us feeling weird because we weren’t rich or beautiful or popular or brilliant or headed to an Ivy League college. There were plenty of things to make you feel bad about yourself in Westport and being black was just one of them. After living in the South now for over 20 years, I’ve grown to believe that the North is just as racist as the South. But its a different kind of racism. In the South, you are White or Black or Mexican. In the North, you are White or Black or Mexican or Italian or Irish or Sicilian or Russian or German or Polish or Armenian or Jewish or Catholic or Muslim or Greek Orthodox...its an immigrant thing and a classist thing too...everyone is defined at some point by their religion and their heritage and their money and sometimes it works just fine and other times it causes a brawl.

In the summer after my freshman year in college, I went home to Westport. My grandfather set me up with a great job -- taking care of a barn of 12 polo ponies owned by Franco, a rich Honduran business man, who was a mediocre polo player. My partner for the summer would be a beautiful black pre-med student from Stanford University. Her name was Lisa and she was on Stanford’s women’s polo team. She stood five foot eleven and rode a horse like a dream. She looked like a super model. Her parents were both doctors in Manhattan and they had just bought a house in Westport. Lisa and I were going to have a blast. The barn was located on the grounds of the Fairfield County Hunt Club, a well known old club that had been in operation since the 1920s. My grandparents were founding members of the Hunt Club and my grandfather ran the polo program there for many, many years. I had grown up riding at the Club. We kept our horses at home, but I would hack my ponies to the Club to go to horse shows and to ride with friends. It was my playground as a child. I spent hours there and I knew every inch of every barn there and I had memorized the menu in the clubhouse. I was on a first name basis with the staff of the Club House and the barns. It was practically my second home.

The ponies arrived on a truck from Texas in early June. They were skin and bones. Lisa and I started in right away with my grandfather’s help on getting the ponies in shape. We showed up early every morning and mucked out all our stalls, six for Lisa and six for me. Then we would tack up the ponies and take them out to the polo field to exercise. Since we had 12 ponies, we would ride one and lead two, one on each side. This way we could work the ponies in sets - two sets of three for me and two sets of three for Lisa. By the end of June we had the ponies looking pretty good. Their coats were beginning to shine and their ribs and hip bones were now fleshed over in muscle. Franco would come to ride in the evenings and sometimes Lisa would go out on the field with him to “stick and ball”, that is, scrimmage with their mallets and a ball. I would just hang out on one of the ponies, because I never learned how to hit a ball off a pony. I could play a mean game of bicycle polo, but my grandfather, despite being a great polo coach never taught me to hit a ball off a horse, he didn’t believe in girls playing polo, at least not until he met Lisa!

When Lisa and I were done riding in the mornings, we would hay up the ponies and then head to the beach for the afternoon. We’d sleep in the sand and eat lunch and swim in the Sound until late afternoon. Then we'd head back to the barn to meet Franco and feed the horses supper. It was a good routine.

One day in late July, I got an idea. Lisa and I had worked all morning in the barn and it was hot day. I said, “Lisa, how about I take you to the Club House for lunch today, instead of the beach. I can still use my grandparents’ tab.” Lisa had never been to the Club House and she thought this was a grand idea. So we washed up and changed into clean clothes, like we did every day to go to the beach and we walked down to the Club House. It was apparent from the minute we stepped into the high ceilinged dining room that something was terribly wrong. The Club ladies who lunched there every day went silent, and the Hungarian sisters who had waitressed at the Club since the beginning of time gave me a funny look instead of the usual smiles and hugs that I was always greeted with. I suggested to Lisa that we sit by the French doors at the front of the dining room so we could watch people working horses out on the polo field. Helga, the darker of the two Hungarian waitresses came to our table. She greeted me tersely, “Hallo Shannon, ice tea for you and your friend?”

“Yes Helga. This is my friend Lisa. We have been working with Franco’s polo ponies this summer”

“Yes, we see you riding out there everyday!”

So things eased up a little and Lisa and I ate our club sandwiches. We tried to ignore the Club ladies who seemed to be staring at us as we ate. When we were done, I signed the check with my grandfather’s initials and a smiley face like I always did. Lisa and I stopped in the ladies room on the way out. We walked in and faced two of my grandmother’s old friends were primping their hair in front of the mirror. They were speaking in hushed tones and clammed up the second Lisa and I walked in. They wrinkled their faces as though something smelled bad. “Hello Shannon, how is your grandmother?”

“Just fine and how are you Mrs. Dee and Mrs. Rrrr?”

They barely answered me and spun out of the room. I looked at Lisa and she looked at me. We knew, but we wouldn’t say. I suggested we get to the beach as soon as possible, “Man, I need a swim, howabout you?” Lisa knodded and off we went. The salt water and the sun washed away the weird film we seemed to be covered with after having lunch in the Club House. And I had just about forgotten what had happened when I got home. My grandmother was sitting at the kitchen table reading the New York Times.

“Hi Mom.”

“Hi Dear. Do you want a hamburger?” Mom offered me a hamburger every time I walked in the door. It was the thing about her.

“Nope, I ate a big lunch at the Club today and then I ate again at the beach.”

“That’s nice Dear.” She didn’t take her eyes off the newspaper. But then the phone rang. “Will you get that Dear?”

“Yeah Mom...Hello?” The voice at the other end of the phone was familiar but it had a weird edge to it.

“Oh oh, Shannon? Its Joey. Is your grandmother there?” It was Joey T. She was on the board of the Hunt Club and a very old friend of my grandparents. Her husband was our family attorney.

“Oh Hi Mrs. T. -- yeah, Mom’s right here.”

Mom got on the phone and the first thing I heard her say was “But Shannon is a groom too...” and then I looked at Mom and could see her hackles going up like an a old fox hound bitch. Seems the conversation went like this:

“Hello Mabel. I hate to bother you with this, but the board asked me to call you. Shannon brought a groom to lunch at the Club House today. Grooms aren't supposed to eat in the Club House.”

“But Shannon is a groom too...you know she’s been working with those polo ponies all summer.”

“Yes, well, Shannon is different.”

“You mean Shannnon is WHITE.”

“Oh Mabel, no, that’s not it at all, its just that...”

“Its just that Shannon brought a black girl to lunch today and it set the world on fire, didn’t it?!”

“Mabel, I think you are over reacting.”

“I’m not over reacting. Do you realize what year it is? Do you know that ”groom“ that Shannon brought to lunch today is a pre-med student at Stanford and the daughter of two Manhattan doctors? Not that it should matter who she is or what color she is! I am outraged that you would think that it was proper to call me and tell me that Shannon did something wrong!”

That’s how the conversation went and then my grandmother, my pithy grandmother told Joey T. that she would never step into that Club House again. And she didn’t. She never went back there. And I didn’t go back until my grandfather’s death. The Club held a reception after Pop’s funeral and there I was back in that big old dining room.

I never told Lisa about the phone call or the number of phone calls that came from various Club board members and members after that. Lisa and I just continued on with our polo ponies for the summer and going to the beach every afternoon. But Lisa knew and I knew that we had, as my grandmother put it, set the world on fire by having sandwiches in the Club House. We just never talked about it. When my grandmother asked me about it, she asked me if I knew people were going to be upset? I told her I had no idea. That it was the furthest thing from my mind that day. I just wanted to take my friend to lunch. I felt so naive. And I felt as though I suddenly didn’t know the people I had grown up around. My understanding of how the world worked was turned upside down. But there stood my grandmother as solid as a rock and I was never prouder of her.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Larson Finds a Home -- Part Three & Final Installment


A few weeks into Larson’s arrival at Snow Hill, Elizabeth reported to me that all was well. Nelson was thrilled with his new burro and there was no longer any threat from the neighbor dogs or coyote. Larson’s new career had taken hold and everyone was happy.

But a year later circumstances changed in the slightest and strangest way.

Nelson went to feed his cows one morning and found Larson adamantly chasing one of the new calves. Nelson was concerned enough that he caught Larson and led him across the road, where he deposited him in the pasture with Catherine’s myriad of old hunt horses and school ponies. Catherine was in mid-semester of her summer riding camp. Each morning several cars full of young girls would arrive at Snow Hill to spend the day grooming and riding horses with Catherine. Of course, these young girls got to know the workings of the farm well and one of their favorite duties of the day was to ride over to the cattle field with Nelson to watch him feed the cows. The star attraction of the cow field for the young girls was Larson, of course -- while Nelson fed the cows, the girls could pet and feed Larson carrots.

Well, on this strange morning, the campers arrived and immediately noticed that Larson was in the field with the horses. He was NOT on his usual side of the road. The girls immediately inquired, “Miss Catherine, Miss Catherine! What is Larson doing over here?” and Catherine responded as honestly as she could.

“Well, girls. Larson lost his job with the cows this morning and now he’s living with the horses.”

Well this put a small panic among among the horse camp girls. They heard Lost His Job very loudly and they feared for Larson’s future. When lunch time came Catherine retreated to her house to eat lunch with Nelson and her son Henry, while the horse campers ate their lunches from paper bags, picnic style, outside in the lovely summer air. A half an hour into lunch, Catherine heard a knock at the door. She opened the door to find two or three of her campers earnestly waiting for her, “Miss Catherine, Miss Catherine, we want to show you something. ” Catherine followed the girls out into the noon day sun to the rail of the riding ring. And what she saw out in the ring astounded her. There was Larson, with a saddle and a bridle on and a little girl led him as another girl rode him! Larson’s head was low and obedient to the little girls’ commands.

“See, see Miss Catherine!” the girls pleaded, “Miss Catherine, Larson has a new JOB!” The girls were so afraid that Catherine and Nelson would get rid of Larson, they took it upon themselves to show that he could be ridden.

Catherine called me the night after this happened and asked me point blank, has Larson ever had a saddle on his back? I told her no way. “You know those girls cinched that girth up REAL tight!” Catherine laughed. I laughed and said, “You know, if you and I had tacked him up and tried to ride him like that, we would have ended up in the nearest tree!” Catherine reassured me that Larson had proved himself worthy of his “new job”!

As the old saying goes about horses, and now I think it can be edited to apply to burros, “A burro will never harm drunks or children!”

Larson Finds a Home -- Part Two



Upon returning to the farm, I found Larson. My fantasies of being free of burro responsibilities went up in a puff of smoke. There he was, not a hair out of place, grazing next to the gate with Joe watching over him. Joe spotted me coming out of the woods and shot me a look. My young horse was impatient for me to open the gate and let Larson back in. Larson no longer looked at me as a threat, now I was just Wolfy with a bucket of sweet feed. As I opened the gate, Larson sauntered past me and then turned, expecting a handful of the molasses covered grain. I obliged him. I was beaten and he knew it. He blinked his almond shaped eyes as big as figs, and just as sweet, at me, and then he said, “Larson 52, Wolfy Zero!”

When Joe turned five I decided it was time to move him to new boarding stable. I was tired of seeing my lovely horse standing outside in all sorts of bad weather, I wanted him to have a stall. And I wanted to be part of a barn with a number of riders -- people to go on trail rides with, to fox hunt with and to socialize with. I would miss the big farm where we were staying, but it was time to move on. It was a place for breeding young race horses and pasturing old brood mares, not a place to continue my horse’s education. But this move came with a dilemma. The new stable had no room for Larson. Well, they had no pasture with a shed I should say, so I could pay to board him in a stall, but my wallet looked askance at me when I made this suggestion. So, with mixed feelings, Larson was always producing mixed feelings in my heart, I placed a classified ad in the Ag News: BLM Burro, 14 yrs, 14 hands, unbroken, but sound, ready to be a pasture mate. $200. I priced him to sell quickly and didn’t care to count the money that I had sunk into him over the past couple of years, what with his bad feet that were now healed and vet bills. I consoled myself by concentrating on the job he had done and done well, which was to be my horse’s confidante and pasture guard. Joe wold miss him terribly. Me? I would miss his bellowing voice and his lovely face, but not the feeling I woke up with everyday, the feeling that made me whisper to myself, ”what is Larson going to do to me today?“

The first prospective buyer who came to see him was a mule lady. She owned three pack mules that she took on long weekend trail rides. She wanted a burro to keep whichever one of the mules was left behind when she hit the trail with the other two. She also had visions of breaking the burro to carry packs and maybe even pull a cart. When she told me this, the most horrendous of pictures came into my mind. I saw Larson careening down a mountain ridge with a pack that had slipped sideways and pots and pans and camping equipment being strewn everywhere. I imagined this woman chasing after Larson into the great gorge and falling to her death. Then I saw another scene. Larson in the traces of a smart little cart galloping full tilt down a rural highway with no driver.

I explained to her that Larson had never been broken to anything, but she was welcome to come see him. She came on a rainy afternoon. Wearing a long Aussie rain slicker and a cowboy hat. She was a big woman. She walked into the barn and Larson backed away from her. She asked if she could take him outside? I handed her the shank and said, ”sure, here you go.“

”He’s a pretty little fella, isn’t he?“

”Yup, Larson is a real looker.“ I suddenly felt like a Horse Dealer. I had always wondered what it felt like to be a Horse Dealer, the kind of person who just lets the buyer step off the cliff while handing you their money. I didn’t mind the feeling, and besides, she was a big woman, Larson couldn’t hurt her, not much.

She put the shank on Larson’s halter and he let out a big snort. I knew that was a bad sign. His lovely eyes widened and his ears, those indicators of what his brain waves were up to, were straight up and down. ”There, there fella,“ she rubbed that soft spot right between his eyes, but this only served to increase Larson’s anxiety. She led him out into the yard and started to ask him to go in a small circle around her on the end of the rope, but all he did was spin and turn his tail toward her, then he kicked out at her. She took a stronger hold of him and started to talk with a low sort of rough voice, ”Now listen here, boy!“ and she jerked on the shank and spun his face back toward her. I was starting to root for Larson now, as this woman seemed to think she was some kind of burro wrangler. She made Larson walk backwards and she spun him around some more and she had him scared as I had ever seen. She walloped him with the end of the rope and made him go this way and that. He was not making any of the decisions. And then the rain started to come down. We retreated into the barn and she handed me the end of the rope. Larson seemed to scoot to my side. For the first time in our two year friendship, Larson was coming to me for help! As the rain streamed off the brim of her cowboy hat she had the nerve to say, ”He’s got terrible ground manners. He needs a lot of work. More work than I want to put into him. If you’re going to sell ‘im, you’re going to need to get him more broke.“ I just nodded and patted Larson on the neck. I wanted to tell her that I wouldn’t be selling him if I thought I could train him, but somehow I knew my words would be wasted on her. So the big girl stomped off into the rain and Larson thanked me for the first time in his life. I said, ”you owe me man!“

The next call came from another woman. But this woman was very demure. She had an old quarter horse that needed a companion in the pasture. That was all she wanted. She had never owned a burro and thought it might be nice to look out the kitchen window and see him out there with her old horse. This was a perfect match, I thought. She came to see Larson. I put him in a stall and groomed him. He looked like a Christmas present in May. The demure lady arrived carrying a bag of carrots and her checkbook. She patted him on the face as he devoured the whole bag of carrots. ”Isn’t he darling?“ she said. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him. She wrote me a check for $200 and I told her I would bring him to her farm the following day. I told her she could have him on a 30 day trial -- that if he didn’t work out for some reason, I could take him back AND I would be happy to answer any questions she had about him during those 30 days. What a fool I was!

But he was sold just in the nick of time. The following day my new friend Sara came to pick up Joe to go to her barn and she agreed to ship Larson to the demure lady’s farm. We put Joe on the trailer with ease, but Larson was a different story. Even though his pal Joe was up in the trailer, Larson was not interested in going in. We pushed, we prodded, we pulled, we cajoled with sweet feed. We got out the lunge whip and cracked it behind him, never hitting him, just making enough noise to push him forward. But nothing was going to get Larson on to that trailer. Joe was a saint. He stood there as the trailer waited for Larson to get on. Finally we took a lunge line and made a pulley-like harness that wrapped around Larson’s little rear-end and then we looped the end of the line through the forward window of the trailer...basically it was a winch, and Sara pulled and pulled and I pushed and pushed and finally Larson’s little and dangerous feet went up and into the trailer. I slammed the door. We had him. It had only taken an hour. We composed ourselves and set off to deliver Larson to his new home.

We pulled into the demure lady’s drive She had a lovely little two stall barn that was neat as a pin and had a nice meadow. Not a big meadow, but it would do, I told myself, it would do. We backed Larson off the trailer just as pretty as you please and I handed the rope to Mrs. Demure. She was beaming with delight. And Larson stood stock still at the end of her rope looking much like he did the day I bought him. He was sizing her up without her knowing it. I told Mrs. Demure to call me if she had any questions and got in the truck where Sara was waiting for me. I told her, ”Quick, let’s go! Before he does something and she changes her mind!“ I felt a twinge of sadness as we left though. Joe was whinnying in the trailer, and I knew that he was already missing his friend Larson. This was not as easy as I thought it was going to be, suddenly I missed Larson as much as Joe did.

But the next day, the phone rang. It was Mrs. Demure. She had many questions. Why couldn’t she groom his hind legs without him kicking at her. Did he always bellow like that in the early morning? Her old quarter horse seemed to be afraid of Larson. Would Larson kick her horse? Should she feed Larson grain? Larson didn’t like to be put in a stall at night -- he bellowed most of the night and kept her husband awake. The questions kept coming. And coming. The next week I decided it was time to make a trip to Mrs. Demure’s little farm to help her out. I arrived and she was all in a flutter. She said she didn’t realize that donkey’s could be so difficult. I poo-pooed her and said, ”Oh Larson is just a big baby. You two are just getting to know eachother!“ but I knew in my heart that things were not going well. Her husband already hated Larson -- ”Mr. Demure likes horses“, Mrs. Demure assured me, ”but he doesn’t like Larson. Larson turns his tail to Mr. Demure every time he goes near him.“ Hmmm, I thought, this could be a deal breaker. But I was patient and kind. I answered her daily emails. I talked to her on the phone. I thought to myself, just get her to the 30 day mark and he’s all hers. But day 31 came with a 6:30 am call. ”Larson kicked with both hind feet at Mr. Demure this morning. I’m afraid we can’t keep him.“

”But Mrs. Demure, its been 31 days. And I have no where to keep him now.“

”I’m sorry, but you will have to take him back.“

”Okay, but I have to find him another home. And I can’t give you your money back, as its been 31 days and I have spent all sorts of time trying to make this work for you. If you will put an ad in the Ag paper, I will see what I can do from my end.“ I remembered a man who had called two days after I had sold Larson to Mrs. Demure. He had a flock of sheep up in northern North Carolina that he wanted a burro to guard from coyote and wild dogs. I didn’t get his telephone number, like a complete idiot. I didn’t know what to do. Mrs. Demure wanted Larson gone by the time Mr. Demure got home from work, but I told her that wasn’t possible, she was going to have to bear with me. She was in tears.

That day I went on a long trail ride with my new friends Sara and Elizabeth. Joe had all but forgotten Larson as he now lived with big foxhunting horses, dark bay fellows who kept him up late at night drinking bourbon by the fire and recounting their years of running with hounds. Sara said she wasn’t surprised that things hadn’t worked out with Mrs. Demure. And then Elizabeth, dear Elizabeth piped up. ”You know, I can’t promise anything but my sister Catherine and her husband Nelson have a 300-acre farm up in Snow Hill, Virginia. Catherine has a little riding school up there you know an Nelson has beef cattle, a big herd he manages for beef. Nelson’s been having trouble with the neighbor’s dogs running the calves and coyote have been a problem too. Do you think Larson would like to live with the cows? Has he ever lived with cattle?“ I didn’t know the answer, but I didn’t see why he couldn’t try and besides, I was desperate to get him out of Mrs. Demure’s hands. Elizabeth said she’d give her sister a call that night, but she emphasized she couldn’t promise that they would take Larson on.

The next morning my phone rang. It was Catherine and she said her husband Nelson was very excited at the prospect of having a ”guard donkey“. I was unfamiliar with this concept until the man with the flock of sheep had called me a few weeks earlier. Sure, I knew that burros were very territorial, but I didn’t realize that cattleman and sheep herders around the country were now utilizing burros to guard their herds instead of border collies and cattle dogs. Burros were a more practical choice in that they could live with the herd 24-7 and their size meant that they could take on groups of coyote and wild dogs, whereas herding dogs were vulnerable to packs, and the herding dogs wanted to sleep in the house at night with the herdsman. So the deal was struck. I told Catherine I would give Larson to them along with the $200 that Mrs. Demure had paid me for him 32 days ago. I wanted them to put the money toward his first vet and farrier bills. I called Sara right away and said, ”Let’s go get Larson!“

The next day, my husband Py and I met Sara at her farm. Py needed a little trip and he was excited to see Larson introduced to the cows. I wasn’t sure how it was all going to go, but I knew that we had a good chance of it working. We pulled into Mrs. Demure’s driveway and she was waiting for us. She was hysterical and crying. She kept apologizing to me and to Larson. She wanted to know where he was going, which annoyed me...I thought, ”Listen woman, I gave this burro two years of my life, it was never perfect, but I hung on for two years and you gave him 31 days!“ but I kept my mouth shut, and asked where he was. Poor Larson was standing in the back of his little stall. I got the feeling he had been there ever since he had tried to kick Mr. Demure with both barrels. The stall was filthy with manure and I figured they were too afraid of him to lead him out to the pasture since his fall from grace, so they were just throwing him hay and waiting for me to come pick him up. ”Hey boy, hey Lars! Its me boy. Let’s make a break, okay?“ Larson came to the front of the stall and put his head in the halter for me. I led him out to the trailer where Sara was waiting with various equipment to winch Larson on, but Larson took a running jump into the trailer. He wanted to get out of there. As I tied his lead rope in the trailer, those huge almond shaped eyes looked at me and he whispered, ”Larson and Wolfy - dead heat!“ I was glad to see those big ears again.

We left Mrs. Demure in a sobbing shambles as we drove away. I told her to look into buying an old pony to keep her horse company.

The drive to Snow Hill Farm was practically triumphant. It was a beautiful and near-hot June day. We had Luke the Wonder Dog, Sara’s fabulous spotted dog riding shotgun with us. As we transported our precious burro cargo over the state line we told stories and the mood was high and filled with anticipation. What would Larson do when he saw that hundred or so head of Angus?

We drove into the gates of Snow Hill -- Catherine and Nelson met us in the yard with all their hound dogs and peacocks. There were peacocks everywhere -- on the roof of their 300 year old stone house that has stood through the sometime since the Revolution and survived the Civil War. The chaos of old farm equipment and horses and pioneer spirit on their farm seems to gain its strength from that old house -- Snow Hill Farm is a magical place and I hoped that this was finally the place for Larson. Nelson jumped in the truck with us, ”Cows are across the road. We need to go back out the gate and park out on the road.“ I didn’t know that their farm was split by the country road they lived on. Suddenly I was apprehensive. I was going to have to unload Larson on the road and then introduce him to the cattle from the gate. This made me think of all the times he had yanked the rope out of my hand and had run off. I almost asked Nelson if he would be willing to unload Larson, but I stopped myself. I decided that it should be me, I should be the one to lead Larson to his new home.

Sara parked the truck on the side of the road. We got out and Nelson called his cattle. And they came. All hundred head of them. They came like a black sea and their bellows were deafening. I was terrified. I thought, ”how am I going to unload Larson in the face of that herd?“ Nelson has a double gate, one opens into a small loading area, and then once you are in there, you can open another gate and be with the cattle. The cattle crowded and wrestled and banged up against the gate. They wanted to know what we had brought them. I had never seen such a scene. Over the din, I asked Nelson if I would be safe? If Larson would be safe? He said in a matter of fact way, that he hoped so. So we opened trailer and I got up in there with Larson. I untied the rope and I looked him in the eye, ”This is your big chance Lars, don’t screw it up!“ He backed out and spun with me to face the crowd. Larson didn’t flinch. We went through the first gate and I turned to look at Py and Sara and Nelson. We were all near tears, really. Nelson came in and opened the second gate and I released Larson’s shank. I had never been near so many cows in all my life -- the flies buzzed, the sun beat down and their voices echoed and echoed - the push of their black bodies against themselves was overwhelming to me. But Larson pricked those beautiful big ears and he advanced!

As he advanced, the steers and the cows and the bulls, of which there were two, parted like the red sea!

Larson walked right through them like a jet flies through storm clouds. And as he picked up a trot, the herd, this massive hairy black herd turned to follow him! Like they had found their Dali Lama! Like the Festival of Colors without the colors, the throng paraded and crushed in and celebrated the arrival of their new leader. There was a sparkling pond in the distance and Larson was on a bee-line for the cool water. He never looked back as he pushed into the water and lowered his head for a drink. The cattle spread out and watched him bathe and drink. The adoration of Larson was upon us. The mama cows presented their little ones to Larson and the little ones gathered around him when he came out of the water. We cheered. We cried. It was done. Larson had found his paradise.

Larson Finds a Home -- Part One


When I tell people that I moved all three of my pets to Bermuda, they always seem astonished. They ask if there was a quarantine? No, there was no quarantine, but there was much paper work and expensive blood tests that showed my dog and two cats to have the proper level of antibodies against rabies...something that was built by their years of vaccines. I spent too many hours on the phone with the Bermuda Department of Agriculture ensuring that my animals would make it through customs and would be allowed to live with me on the island. I was not going to move to Bermuda if my animals couldn’t come with me and Py was in complete agreement -- we are committed to every animal we take into our family, for life. Really, the only thing that would divide us from our animals is the End Of Times.

But I did own a burro for a time that has since gone to live with someone else. Larson was never mine, he was just passing through. I was just a stop on his journey to the perfect home. He was born in the desert in New Mexico and rounded up by the the Bureau of Land Management. Poor Larson was loaded on a cattle truck with his herd and one by one they were auctioned off and scattered hither and yon around the country, no longer able to wander the desert and live among the jack rabbits and the armadillos and the tumble weed. I bought Larson from the woman who had bought him at the BLM auction. I needed a companion for my horse Joe and people told me that a burro would do the trick quite nicely. Since my horse was turned out night and day in a 5-acre rural pasture back then, the idea of having a burro was very comforting. Burros are fiercely territorial and will heroically guard their home ground against coyotes, snakes, wild dogs, and in Larson’s case Canada Geese. They will stomp a snake to death. I witnessed Larson killing a copperhead once, and it made me glad that Larson believed, for the most part, that I was on his side.

I had never owned a burro before Larson. Only horses and ponies. The only advice I received from the sinewy and boisterous little woman who sold him to me was to “always make sure that what ever you are doin’ with him, that he thinks it was his decision!” And then she got into her beautiful red half-ton truck, with my $400 in cash in her pocket and drove away. As we watched the trailer disappear down the driveway, Larson stood stock still on the other end of the rope I was holding in my hand. He was as pretty as a Christmas present with his jet black winter coat and his fawn colored muzzle and light rings around his eyes that reminded one of a panda bear. He stood almost 14 hands, so he wasn’t quite a Mammoth, but I would find out soon that he was a mammoth in his heart. As I fingered the rope, I wondered who was holding who. Larson was in charge and would remain that way for the duration of our friendship.

The first thing Larson did to me was to kick me. I was picking out his feet on his second day in the pasture. I had him securely tied to the fence by the shed. It was a cold day, real cold, and on close examination, I discovered that while he appeared to be the picture of health with his Saks Fifth Avenue worthy fur coat, his feet were in sorry shape - full of thrush and white line disease. So his feet hurt and he didn’t want you fooling with them. I was ever so carefully picking out one of his hind feet when he yanked it out of my hand and blasted me in the elbow. Now you are probably thinking, what’s the big deal? All burros kick and with no shoes, it couldn’t have been that bad. Well, it stung me pretty good through my winter coat, enough to cause a good black and blue tattoo, but you see, I had NEVER been kicked by any equine in my entire life up to that point! I had 39 years of living with horses behind me that morning and Larson ruined a perfect record. I stood there holding my arm and holding my tongue as Larson turned his enormous head to look at me. He seemed to be saying, “Larson one, Wolfy zero.” It was going to be no trouble letting him think that everything we did was his decision, because in fact, all of it was his decision.

Meanwhile, my horse Joe, was completely enamored of Larson. When I presented Joe with this magical burro, he was ever so thankful. He softly spoke to Larson as I released the shank and then the two of them walked off into the meadow together. They were going to be fast friends -- 12 year old Larson had many stories to tell my 4 year old Joe and Joe would come to depend on Larson. Some say that a burro turned out with a young horse will instill courage and fortitude in the youngster -- and I believe it, as I saw Larson do just that for my horse’s sense of confidence.

That winter was a cold one, with snow and wind, but Larson and Joe huddled in their shed together and when March came, we were all relieved. By then I had taught Larson that it was okay to come out of the meadow and go up to the big barn with me every once in a while. It took several of us to get him to go in the barn and into a stall. He was sure that we were going to make soup out of him, but several handfuls of sweet feed showed him the way and he finally decided to come in. I needed to put him in a stall to work on his diseased feet. If I tried to work on him in the pasture, he just fought me. The stall contained him, somewhat. But everything remained his decision. I was not his keeper, I was an annoyance that he could take or leave. He had kicked me, shoved me, dragged me, pinned me against walls. And yet I continued to fool myself into thinking that one day he would come around.

On the first real warm day of the spring, I decided to give Larson a bath. Key words here: I Decided. Larson’s coat was shedding and he needed some spiffing up. So with my horse looking on from the gate, I led Larson up to the well house and turned the hose on. That’s all it took. Larson saw the water coming from that hose and his gigantic ears went flat back and that was the last I would see of him for the next 3 hours. Larson yanked the rope out of my hand and took off into the woods. Joe ran up and down the fence line whinnying as I ran to the barn to get a bucket of sweet feed. Thus began the 3 hour search in the hundred-acre woods. I considered running back to get Joe, but I figured by the time I put a saddle on him, Larson would be in Raleigh. Plus Joe was so distressed to see his burro head for the hills, it seemed unlikely that Joe and I would be good burro hunting partners.

I was in a complete panic. Another first for me: I had never lost an equine. Sure, I’d had a couple of horses get away from me, but they didn’t go very far, they remained within my view and were usually content to stop at the nearest patch of grass to graze and then be caught. But Larson was GONE -- my only hope was that he would stick to the trails and eventually hear me calling and shaking the bucket of feed. I caught a glimpse of him in the first 30 minutes -- there through the veil of trees was a great eared silhouette, moseying through the forest. I called to him. He turned to see me and bolted. I was pouring with sweat -- I thought about the dairy farm next door. I thought about the roads that framed these woods I was stomping around in. I hoped that Larson would head for the dairy farm -- certainly the Snipes family would notice a burro among their ranks and catch him for me. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind that Larson might reach the road and be hit by a truck. This filled me with mixed emotions -- I was mad as a hornet at him for running away and it would serve him right to be killed by a truck. But the liability of having one’s burro total someone’s truck could be enormous, so enormous that I shuddered with the thought. And what would this do to Joe? Joe would be devastated by the loss of his burro. I quickly made plans to buy a pony for Joe by the weekend - a nice civilized pony who would let me make all the decisions. I am sorry to say, not once did it occur to me that I would be sad to see Larson dead.

I decided to head for the Snipe’s Dairy Farm -- the trail was wide and inviting, something I imagined Larson might enjoy. He was a beast of the desert, a nomad, and this trail would appeal to his senses I thought. As I walked and scanned the woods, I remembered that I had left the hose running, dammit, not only did I lose my burro, but now the well was going to go dry. This beautiful first day of spring was turning out to be a nightmare. Who did I think I was? Nobody bathes a burro!

I reached the edge of the Snipe’s farm -- all I could see were cows, a few hundred head of lovely holsteins. Some of them raised their heads and looked my way. I must have looked mighty ridiculous to them, “Have you seen my burro?”

“No, no we haven’t seen your burro.” And that was that, I turned back into the woods. I began to hike toward Orange Grove Road. There was a hell of a hill between me and the road and I knew when I got to the top of it I would be able to see quite a lot of the countryside. Perhaps, just perhaps, I would spot Larson -- a lone burro who was just maybe starting to feel some remorse about running away from home. I made it to the top of that hill, a hill I had only climbed on horse back, and I stood there, breathing much harder than a 39 year old woman should, and I searched the landscape for my burro. I felt like an Indian scout looking for that one cavalryman, who would tell of the white man coming to take my land. But no burro and no cavalryman. Just vultures teetering on the invisible thermals in a clear blue sky.

It had been two hours now and I decided to head back to the barn. I descended the hill and trudged along the gas line -- a wide swath of open right-of-way punctuated by red clay mounds and the occasional marker to remind you that a large gas pipe lay below your feet. I was daunted suddenly by the size of the countryside surrounding me. Larson could be anywhere. And then it hit me. I decided he was no longer mine. That if he were to never return, if he were to be hit by a truck, if a neighbor was to find him, that I would take no responsibility for this burro. If his picture were to appear in the newspaper under the headline “FOUND: Burro,” I would not reclaim him. Not many people knew I owned a burro, it would be easy to deny he was ever mine. This was all his decision, this running away stunt, and I had nothing to do with it. I washed my hands of him. I felt free.

Still Life with Three Dogs