Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Luxury of the Sunday Drive

I’m quitting using gas. When I go to Wal-Mart, it costs me twenty bucks. Thirty dollars if I forgo the hick look and do some real shopping in Roanoke. If I keep it up, I’m going to have to get a real job.

Everywhere you go in the country is far. That’s one of the drawbacks. In Jersey, you could walk down to the supermarket if you really wanted to. Granted, you got people shaking their fists at you and giving you the middle finger because you’re too far in the road trying to skirt around someone’s chain-link fence or avoid a vicious dog, but you didn’t spend anything doing it. My friends up north gasp when I tell them it takes me at least an hour to drive anywhere around here. They can’t believe, when we’re yakking about how to pinch pennies, that it’s not worth bringing clothes to the consignment shop, even the ones from the real shopping places, because they won’t pay you what you spent in gas. Or how you spend more money going to Sam’s Club than you save because of the gas. Everything I do, I ask myself nowadays, is it worth the gas?

People with little cars might think I’m cheap. But let them walk a mile in my shoes. Or in this case, drive it. I have a pickup truck, the ultimate gas guzzler. The last time I went to the Minute Market for gas and milk and a package of Little Debbie powdered donuts, it cost me over a hundred bucks. I thought about buying a Hyundai to hold me over until the gas goes down, if it ever goes down again, but what I’d spend on the car—the insurance, registration, personal property tax (something else they get you for down here) and the maintenance—would not offset the price of gas. Assuming that this situation is, of course, temporary.

Even if gas never goes down again, I can’t get rid of my pickup truck. I use it for farm purposes. I use it for getting grain and shavings and mulch. I use it to take the horses places and to transport irregular-shaped or large items like plastic kiddie pools for dog swimming, antique dressers hauled out of the Dumpster and flats of flowers. Plus, I like how I look in it. Big black truck, long blonde hair, sunglasses, Marvin Gaye or Gretchen Wilson (yes, I have very eclectic taste) blasting out of a stereo system Kurt installed so I’d be even sexier. Nah, I can’t get rid of it. But it’s going to sit right there in my driveway for as long as possible.

I’m not the only one revolting. I recently read about a guy in Missouri who is so mad he has sworn off his car and is pedaling to work on an old blue Schwinn even though it’s fifteen miles each way. Uphill. And there’s a kid in Tennessee who is actually riding his horse to school. Now that sounds like a great idea. But if I rode Harley to Wal-Mart, where would I tie him up? And where would I put the groceries? I know, I could use those stalls where you return the carts and hook him up to a wagon to carry the groceries home. Yeah, that’s it. We could all go back to horses and wagons just like Little House on the Prairie! It’d be fun! It’d be an adventure!

Kurt said, “Now you’re taking this country stuff a little too far. Next thing you know, you’ll be churning butter.”

Well, I don’t know about that. That’s manual labor for no good reason if you ask me. Like making soap. As close as I get to that is saving all the little leftover pieces and squishing them together in a big ball. It’s an Irish Spring/Ivory Soap/lavender-and-ginseng glob no one will use.

We’re not poor. Kurt makes a good living. But it’s still a struggle. The gas has caused everything to go up. I got sticker shock when I went into Wal-Mart last week. Almost four dollars for a loaf of bread? Almost a dollar for one pepper or one cucumber? I didn’t buy everything I wanted. I skipped the Sara Lee smoked turkey at the deli and ordered “whatever’s cheapest.” I bought bologna. I bought generic brands and I cut back on the extras. No paper plates, no paper towels, no People magazine even though there was something in there about Brangelina’s twins and it’s only a matter of time before Brad comes to his senses and wonders what he has gotten himself into. I’m sorry. I don’t like her. She’s mean to her dad. We’re talking about the Midnight Cowboy she’s being mean to. No wonder it didn’t bother her to take Jen’s husband—if she can be mean to the Midnight Cowboy….

Anyway, that is neither here or there. Buying crappy brands didn’t make a bit of a difference. The bill still came out to $388. for three people. I got out my glasses. It was somehow even higher than the last time. I don’t know what I spent it on. We’re still out of everything.

I wonder about the people who actually work at Wal-Mart. The people in low-wage jobs. Or even the guy down at the cabinet shop who has a good trade but who still only brings home about six hundred bucks a week. Decent money around here. I think about the nurse who is going to take the position the county is advertising for right now that pays a salary of $29,000 a year. How can they even afford to go to work? What about the people who have to pay for child care on top of it? They can’t possibly make any money after they fill up their tanks.

I’m giving everybody a heads-up. Don’t expect me to go anywhere unless it’s absolutely necessary because my wheels are parked. Sunday drives have become a luxury and my days of cruising around looking at the nice scenery around here are over. There will be no more driving to community service projects for the 4-H club or willy-nilly excursions to Lowe’s or automatic participation in fun activities without considering the distance and the fun factor. Except for barrel races and Frank’s Pizza, I’m not budging.

I wouldn’t even go down to the Minute Market when I ran out of milk. I called Kurt and asked him to stop on the way home. Then the next day I asked him to stop and get bread. Then I asked him to make the bank deposit on his way out. Kelly had a sleepover here and normally I would have offered to drive the girls home but this time I didn’t say a word. I didn’t say boo. It all adds up. My truck is still sitting there with half a tank. I’m saving it for a rainy day. I’m seeing how long I can go. Or stay. If gas goes up any higher, my tires just might dry rot.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Message

The good old country pony reared on me. Two days later he was out of here. My friend from the north, who knows nothing about horses and thinks I’m a barbarian for riding them, said, “That’s quite extreme, isn’t it?” Not the fact that he reared on me. The fact that I gave him away for doing it. But I can’t blame her for thinking that. Apache had been coming along very well. Even my daughter Jamie said, “He reared one time and you gave him away?”

“One time” being the key words here. I hear it in my head, a wise old man’s warning, a smart mother’s admonition, “That’s all it takes is one time.” I have no patience for dangerous acts of rebellious ponies. Even if it was only once. Maybe if Apache was for me. Maybe I’d chalk it up to being caused by one of many things that might have been wrong, or that I might have done wrong, and keep trying—I was too easy on him and he thought he could get away with it. Ponies test. It’s their job. Or maybe he needs his teeth done and his mouth hurt. Or maybe I put too much pressure on him because he’s so dead quiet—it would be easy to assume he knows more than he does and he couldn’t comply, so out of frustration, he took a tantrum instead.

But, excuses and reasons aside, he wasn’t for me. He was for Kelly. I was riding him to make sure he was safe for her. I was riding him for just this reason—to make sure he wouldn’t do something dangerous like rear or buck when he got a bee under his bonnet. It took me eight months to find this out. Kurt kept telling me, “Let her ride him!” But my gut kept saying no. I made jokes about how I wanted him for myself. He was so easy to ride. Easy on. Easy off. Just grab him. He stays put wherever you place him. You don’t even need a halter on him. I was even thinking about hopping on him bareback, something I haven’t done since I was a kid.

But he had that little stubborn streak. It was nagging at me like how a hair feels on the back of your tongue when you’re not quite sure that it is there. It’d been a long time since he pulled a combo but I had the feeling that he wanted to. It took me two years to let Kelly ride Doc. And that turned out to be two wasted years because Doc never does anything wrong. I’m one of those nervous mommies. I wouldn’t let Kelly eat hot dogs until she was ten-years-old because it’s on the list of the top ten choking foods. Well, I let her eat them because I didn’t want her to be on the list of kids-at-school-who-get-picked-on, but I watched her like a hawk. I hovered over her while she was chewing and one time, when she made a funny face, I jumped up, knocked my chair over and prepared to perform the Heimlich maneuver. “Mom!” she rolled her eyes. “I just licked my lips!”
Horses are dangerous enough animals in the best case scenario. But I had to admit that two years was a little ridiculous. And so I stepped it up with Apache. I called my sister in New Jersey whose daughter is older than Kelly and told her, “Get Erin down here ASAP. I need her to ride the hell out of this pony.”—there’s nothing better for getting a good broke horse than having a tough kid ride him all over the place. I hurried up and started riding him every chance I could get so he would be ready for Erin to take over when she arrived. And then he reared.

I thought he was going to go over backwards on me. We teetered up there for long enough for me to think about the little girl out in Oklahoma who was just killed on a horse who reared and flipped over on her but it was probably only a split second. I didn’t even have time to drive him forward. The minute his feet hit the ground, I jumped off, whacked him, and called for Kelly’s helmet. I got back on him so he wouldn’t think he got away with it and walked him to the round pen. I got off him again and worked him from the ground. But I was doing this for the new owner. I already knew it was over. I wasn’t keeping him. There was no point to ever get on him again because I was never going to let Kelly get on him.

Talk about flipping, Kurt flipped his lid when I told him I was going to give him away. He said he’s tired of giving away horses and selling them for less money than what we paid for them. But I am painfully honest. I could never sell Apache to someone and not say that he reared. Even if he reared only once in eight months. The buyer who would be attracted to this horse would be someone with kids because he’s so dead quiet. I’d have to say it. And buyers would think it was worse than what it was. They’d think he was a rearer, when the truth is, he may not ever do it again.

My honesty is the reason I wasn’t able to sell Doc when I tried to unload the old guy a few years back. One of the reasons I wouldn’t let Kelly ride him was because I was afraid he was too big for her and so I decided to sell him and look for a pony. He was twenty-one at the time and could have passed for twelve. Most sellers would have thrown away his papers and said he was younger (hence, all the older horses for sale who do not have registration papers) but not me. I also told them every little detail. Once he tried to kick the dog. He did it one time when Pup-Pup ran up behind him when he was eating but now they think he’s a kicker. Sometimes he’ll walk away from you when you go out to catch him. Now they think he’s hard-to-catch, when the truth is, all you need is a piece of baling twine to go get him and it’s never taken longer than a few seconds. He’s a little arthritic. Now they think he’s three-legged. I guess I can’t blame them for thinking the real story is way worse than what it is. Because the truth is, horse sellers have a bad reputation. They’re about as bad as car dealers. But God rewarded me for my honesty. Doc didn’t sell and Kelly started riding him. She’s been riding him all over the place ever since and he is a bombproof wonder horse. But he’s getting up there in age and Kelly wants to ride him harder than I think he deserves. I’d like to retire him soon. Which is why we bought Apache, the good old country pony.

I gave Apache to my friend Karen who is an excellent horsewoman and a good home. Whatever she does with him, will be the right thing. But I still felt bad. I started second-guessing myself. Should I have worked with him some more? He only did it once. He’s so nice. And he’s gorgeous. I really liked him. And he liked me. When Harley chased him, he ran to me and hid behind me like I was his mommy. I felt like I betrayed him. Was he scared in the new place? Should I have given up so soon? What kind of cowgirl am I anyway?

Then I got a message. My friend’s daughter, Amber, who is one of Kelly’s best friends, had a bad accident. The two of them learned to ride together. In fact, I have a picture of them right here on my desk, riding double on Minnie when they were just four-years-old. And now Amber, a little tiny thing at barely sixty pounds, got hurt. Her horse reared up and flipped over on her. My friend Sissy, her mother, held her limp daughter in her arms and tasted fear and dread like no mother should ever have to experience. Across the country, I stepped into her shoes and my heart started beating out of my chest.

Later, I couldn’t help thinking about how coincidental the timing was and this message that I had been given. If I had any second thoughts, after this, I know I did the right thing, listening to my gut. Because all it takes is one time.

Amber Markus is out of the hospital now and on the road to recovery. She is a tough cowgirl and is in everyone’s thoughts and prayers from Oklahoma to New Jersey and Virginia.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Broom in the Country

There is a bird’s nest on the column on our porch. It was there last year and a bird had her babies in it and now she’s back again. Or a different bird moved in. I’m not sure.

It is a miracle of modern construction. I expected at least to find it askew the next morning after we had tornadic winds the night before but it stayed stuck up there like gum on a shoe. There are dirt splatters on the rafter and the ceiling around it like she put it together with spit. There are bits of hay and stems. She’s got a horse hair up there. A long piece from a tail or it could be from my own head. I pat my head as if to check if I am missing something. I am watching her from the rocking chair. I don’t know how she gets any sleep with us in and out all night. Since we’ve been trying to quit smoking, we made a new rule that there is no smoking in the house. I figured if we have to go outside every time we light up, it would be hard to smoke so many. The porch light is on more than it is off. If one of us is not out there smoking, the other one is. I began to move things outside. There is a basket with magazines. There is a candle. An extra pair of glasses. A pen, my rock collection, and of course, an ashtray. The bird must be exhausted.

I am surprised she came back to use the nest with us out there smoking our brains out. Talk about bad neighbors. We even got a couple of cats here. But they can’t climb up the column because it’s made of plastic. It is actually quite genius, where she put her nest, under the porch, behind the eaves, on a house belonging to me.

It could have been Effie’s house. Effie knocks birds’ nests down with her broom. One time she nailed one with her shoe. “That’ll teach him for making a mess on my truck,” she said. Effie’s turquoise pickup truck is her pride and joy. She parks it under one of those metal carports they sell in farmer’s fields and empty driveways next to insurance offices and music shops for $595 installation included.

My girlfriend told me a story, (another city girl gone country, and so we often swap stories about how we came to be loving this country life), about when she was a girl and she spent her summers at a farm in upstate New York. She told me about how the girl who lived on the farm, let’s call her The Farm Girl, picked up a broom, and my friend, who sat on a crate in the barn aisle picking her nails, expected her to do what most people do when they pick up brooms--sweep the floor. Suddenly The Farm Girl raised the broom above her head and swung it at a bird’s nest that was built on a ledge over her saddle. Baby birds scattered like a jar of pennies fell and broke open. My friend screamed. The Farm Girl was genuinely surprised to see her reaction and offered to scoop them back up and place them back in the nest. They might survive. If you don’t touch them, the mother bird will never know. The Farm Girl crawled on her hands and knees and gathered up the pieces of the nest while my friend sobbed and shook her head. The Farm Girl molded the pieces back into a bowl-shape like she was making a piece of pottery and placed it back onto the ledge above the saddle. “See, see, it’s just like it was before,” she assured her. She pushed one of the hairless birds onto the basin of a shovel with the toe of her boot, lifted it to the nest and dumped it in. My friend wailed louder. She vowed she would never be that kind of farm girl. I nodded.

And then the mice tore up our grain, chewed holes in our saddle blankets and left droppings all over the place like chocolate sprinkles on a cone. The humane traps were all talk and no action. We consulted with each other over the phone. How to do this? What was kinder? The classic mouse trap, a sticky trap or poison? I opted for the poison. I didn’t need to see the beseeching face of a mouse looking up at me and wiggling his nose to please come and save him, or a body flopping around in a panic, half dead because the bar on the trap missed and only got a limb. No, if I had to do it, I didn’t want to see it.

After the dogs died and before I got The Big Stupid, there were larger rodent problems, possums, raccoons, something big I couldn’t figure out what it was, and a fox situation. There was a copperhead (See “The Do-Nothing Technique) plus coyotes howling out back who I was sure were having fantasies about a Minnie the Pony dinner with all the fixin’s. And the birds. Just like in The Farm Girl’s barn, they crapped all over the hay, on the trophies on the shelf, on the jars of Corona and Kopertox and on my saddles. White bird dung dried to a dust and blew all over the place, coating cracks and crevices like baby powder when a wind came in. I swept it up every day. But I didn’t sweep away any baby birds. I tried to scare them from coming in by hanging up owls like the kind you see dangling in the big doorways where the DOT keeps their sand and road salt. But birds are smart. They never fell for it. They kept coming in and making a mess all over everything. I covered all my stuff with plastic tablecloths and Hefty bags. I thought about The Farm Girl and even though I could never do what she did, I stopped thinking she was so mean.

Eventually Kurt came to the rescue and spent one of his days off cutting boards and fitting them into the spaces between the wall and the roof like a jig-saw puzzle. There would be no more ventilation through the eaves but there are enough gaps and openings in that barn that we could seal the whole thing up with caulking and still get plenty of air. Then we stood back and watched. A bird flew over and slammed on the brakes. He hovered, scratched his head like what happened, flapped his wings and took off for the trees where he should have been in the first place.

Maybe he told the bird on the porch about me. A kind lady lives there. She saved a copperhead once. The only thing you have to put up with is some second-hand smoke, but hey, it’s a perfect spot, on a perfect little porch, on a perfect little house. The only thing they’ll do on that porch with a broom is sweep it.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Fly Swatter

Nobody can kill flies like I do. I just wake up, walk into the kitchen, some flies are flying around getting ready to annoy me, and wham! wham! wham! Dead. Three in a row, dead as doorknobs. I don’t even have to be fully awake to hit my target. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I land one. That’s a really good success rate. I have a technique but I’m not going to divulge my secret unless you beg me.

My family up north couldn’t care less about prying it out of me. It’s useless information to them. They live in places with windows they never open. It’s a permanent seventy degrees there all year long—heated in the winter, air conditioned in the summer. And there are no livestock around so nothing to attract flies. They don’t even own a fly swatter.

Coming from there, I was shocked at the amount of flies I got when we first moved out to Oklahoma. And it didn’t get any better when we moved to Virginia, first to the Amityville Horror House and then to here. The flies were all the same in the country. Relentless terrorists who zeroed in on the rim of my coffee cup the minute I put it down. They’re about as bad as roaches, disgusting-wise. Think about what they walk on.

I kill so many of them I’m tired of wasting a whole napkin to pick them up. Can’t leave mangled fly bodies around. I wish I could say that I also have a technique, maybe a swift flick of the wrist that stops their hearts without decapitating them or scattering fly limbs and broken wings, but no, fly murder cannot always be accomplished neatly. There’s often a clot of guts left behind and the first phase of clean-up is to remove it with half a napkin. I follow with a disinfect by wiping for a minimum of thirty seconds with my cleaning rag soaked with Pine Sol. Well, that thirty-second thing is not true. But I do use the Pine Sol.

You’d think the flies were smart, the way they hang around on the door hoping to hitch a ride inside when you come in. There they are, hovering out there, like vultures, walking up the glass, congregating on the molding, just waiting for their chance. And then, zoom! They rush inside and land willy-nilly on the kitchen counter or the back of a chair or the rim of a coffee cup. I get the fly swatter. I won’t be able to relax until I put him out of his misery. He’s got about ten seconds left. I don’t know why they don’t spread the word to the others. There is death in here. It is much safer outside in the barn where there’s horse manure to land on and half-eaten cat food Lovely the Barn Cat left behind. All those cows next door, why, you’d think they’d be having a heyday. But no, they’ve got to come in here.

I’m also in charge of getting rid of the ladybugs, stink bugs and spiders. I try not to kill the spiders. I tell Kurt, “Spiders are our friends.” But he’s scared of them. I can barely get him to get it together enough to hand me one of his humongous size twelve-and-a-half steel-toed work boots when I am standing guard over one because I can’t take my eyes off it or else he’ll get away and I, reluctantly, have to kill it. Some of them look mean and you know they bite or they’re just too big or fast to catch and carry outside. So I’m watching it and I’m motioning with my hand, “Com’on, com’on, give me a shoe, give me something!” But my back-up, Kurt and Kelly, are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Finally I grab a magazine and I smack it. Now I have to rip the back page off and throw it away.

You’d think I’d be scared of bugs, coming from the city. And being a girl. But nope, not really. I’ve been known to whack a cockroach barehanded if I spot one running across my kitchen counter. You can’t let a roach get away. You’ve got to kill him any way you can or else when you get up to go pee in the middle of the night, you flick on the switch, and suddenly find yourself with a hundred roaches scattering in all directions. You’ve just got to think of the long-term picture and not your short-term revulsion. Just get the job done or else it’ll get worse.

I guess that’s how I got the job of bug eradicator around here. It’s not really fair. It’s a dirty job. But someone’s got to do it.

Edited to add: Kurt wants me to clarify that I am roach savvy because of past experience, not because I have them now. I grew up in Jersey City in apartment buildings where it was not uncommon for them to spread from one apartment to another depending on the tenants. Here, we have flies, stink bugs, ladybugs, spiders, chiggers, ticks, various beetles and assorted insects I am not familiar with, but no cockroaches.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Little Bull Calf Needed Help

Today I saw a miracle. Kelly came running into the house, “There’s a cow being born! Hurry!” I grabbed the movie camera and ran to the other side of our garage where Eldon and Pearl’s cow pen is. There was a cow in the chute and Eldon and his nephew, Jackson, were behind her. They had our baseball bat. Attached to the baseball bat were ropes. The other end of the ropes were attached to the calf’s legs which were sticking out of his mother. Kurt was on the outside of the pen holding a board steady.

They pulled with all their might and the calf plopped out onto the ground. I was relieved to see his chest moving. I think the fall helped him to breathe. The mother cow turned around, sniffed, and seemed to wonder, “How’d you get here?” She immediately started licking him. Pearl and I ran to get warm water and towels for the men to clean themselves off. Neighbors came over to see. The sun was just starting to get lower in the sky, warm on the calf’s wet fur. Everything was still, except for our excitement--a handful of neighbors who saved a life using a baseball bat and ropes.