Two mother themed excerpts from The Town Slut’s Daughter, oddly, or not, both involving horses, gelding and foaling specifically.
No matter how many times they moved, Bill and Jeanette managed to find another shack, the latest a long, low rancher in Langley.
Jeanette was homesick, longing to return to Quebec, despite how wretched life had been. Would she ever be free of the past, the fear that at Sister Ann Marie might come along and yank her pigtails or rap her on the knuckles with a wooden ruler?
She didn’t see too many empties but worried Jeanette might hurt herself again, relieved to hear she’d had taken up crochet, though all the crappy old furniture was covered in ugly, acrylic afghans. Why can’t she use real wool? Bill had gotten her a pet, a little wiener dog she dubbed Schultz, after the character in Hogan’s Heroes.
“Why couldn’t you get a real dog?”
“He’s a Daschund. Hey, he’s a tough little bugger! Full of piss and vinegar. Just watch him.”
The little bugger dragged in a giant field rat. Jeanette cheerfully tossed the carcass into the garbage, explaining the godamned things liked to chew through her telephone cables. She mopped up the blood as Fiona watched Schultz chase down more vermin, sturdy little body parting a sea of tall grass.
“They were bred to go down badger holes.” Jeanette deftly shuffled a deck of cards, machine-rolled cigarette dangling from her lips. “You know how mean a badger is?” She dealt out a hand of Solitaire, Fiona relieved she wasn’t badgering her into Gin Rummy.“Shultz doesn’t know how little he is.” Jeanette gloated. “He’ll take on any dog that crosses his path. He wriggles under, goes right for the jugular.”
“Well, they say pets resemble their owners. Or is it the owners that resemble their pets?”
Jeanette laughed. “Yeah, so we’re tough.”
Fiona once saw her mother evict a drunk twice her size and half her age by the seat of his pants. She was earning a reduction in rent for lifting bales of hay, feeding and watering the landlord’s horses. Fiona sat on the fence as Jeanette admired the animals through the slats. Fiona could feel the thoroughbreds’ hot breath on her collarbone as they ambled up, snuffling, nudging her arm for carrots. I’m not scared when I know what they want.
Jeanette pointed at the pinto. “Indian Joe. They just gelded him.”
What was left trotted round the periphery, stallions shadowing him, nipping his neck and flanks. He snorted and kicked wildly but the stallions were ruthless, tormenting him until he ran under an old hemlock, cowering, stranded in his altered state. Fiona clambered down. Jeanette grabbed her by the arm before she could enter the paddock.
“Fiona. No! What do you think you’re doing?”
“He needs help! Why don’t they leave him alone?”
“You’re too young to understand.”
“I am not!”
“All right.” Jeanette ground her cigarette butt into the fence post. “Do you understand he’s a eunuch? A freak? Spooking the studs.”
Fiona stared at her mother’s forehead. Jeanette sighed. They headed back to the house. Fiona told her she was moving to LA.
“Aw, no!” gasped Jeanette. “Don’t tell me that!”
“Sorry. I have to go. There’s nothin’ happening here. We have to go where the music business is. We wanna get signed. All the major labels are down there.”
“But, I’ll miss you!” Looking to the ground, Jeanette began to cry. Go for the jugular.
“You can come visit,” said Fiona, both knowing it was a fiction.
“Why won’t you let me be your mother? You’re just a baby! My baby.”
Fiona vehemently shook her head No. Jeanette winced. Fiona watched Schultz, wonder wiener, yipping and dogging horses, inches from hooves the size of his head. She nudged her mother, pointed. Jeanette’s eyes rounded at the dog’s antics.
“No badgers, but happy as a pig in shit, isn’t he?”
Laughing, she whacked Fiona across the shoulder blades, nearly knocking her into the knee-high muck. Two days later, the Virgin Marries moved to Los Angeles.
They collected the Virgins and headed up to his folks’ place near Santa Barbara, Fiona excited, insisting on a visit to the Mission. The weather was glorious, world a blue sphere; sky of sapphire, ocean of turquoise. She noticed a fantastic tree hanging off the cliffs, pistachio wood peeking out from peeling cinnamon bark.
“Madrona,” said Rita, planting her big feet on the dash. “They’re called arbutus in B.C.”
Jackie and Dolores skulked and sulked in the back of the van. Jackie is prettier. She should have been interviewed.
“It’s not surfing season, is it?” Fiona pointed to several zinc-nosed hangdogs trying to catch a wave.
Rita laughed. “It’s always surfing season in California.”
A kaleidoscope of kites whirred above Santa Barbara’s broad, tidy, expansive pier, gum booted locals lazily fishing. Mottled pelicans waddled by, begging for tidbits like dogs. Kamikaze gulls zeroed in on the girls, one snatching Dolores’s hot dog. She nearly cried.
They reached the pink adobe Queen of the Missions in a natural amphitheater carved by the coastline and the Santa Inez Mountains. They strolled past crumbling tombs, cactus gardens and a stone fountain, lion’s head spitting water. Fiona gazed up at a looming crucifix—thorny crown, sunken gut, ragged loincloth, spikes driven through hands and feet of clay, Christ so beautiful in his suffering. I am so not a good Catholic. Fiona was good at ignoring martyrs, victims, whether they be Jesus, Jeanette, Dennis, or herself. The twins hugged the statues and mimicked the strung-up Son of God. Inside they found ten cubicles for praying to Christ, the Virgin of Guadeloupe or any number of saints.
High noon. Time to go, countryside arid inland. It seemed everybody drove a pickup in and out of the oak groves and hills covered with chaparral and poppies. Dennis waved to a local yokel in a Sunny Country 102 FM cap. Soon they pulled into a long driveway and headed toward several big barns and a huge, yellow Victorian house festooned in white gingerbread.
“Hey!” cried Dolores. “It’s just like the Big Valley.”
THE JEKLINS CHAMPION ARABIANS Dennis had made it sound like a hobby farm. He pulled into the yard and jumped out of the van, swooping his mother up into a bear hug. More blondes. More Jeklins barreled toward him, pouncing on his chest with glee. Dennis introduced the Virgins to mother Sharon and adolescent sisters, Laura and Nicole. The property was overrun with goats, geese, ducks, chickens, calico cats, Labrador dogs and Elvis the potbellied pig, the only beast rating an introduction and aptly named, propelling himself forward primarily from the pelvis. They walked to the main barn, Fiona recognizing Shalimar as the breed in Black Beauty, one of her favorite childhood reads. Shalimar pranced in a circle round the paddock, pawing the ground, tail high in the air. Sharon explained that Arabians were exotic, hot-blooded, bred strictly for show.
“She’s gorgeous!” gushed Dolores.
“Horses are beautiful,” said Fiona, “but I have no urge to ever mount one.”
Sharon smiled. “We love them. For their spirit. Courage.”
Dennis communed with his broodmare. “She’s colicky. A couple of hours I’d say. Monitors on?”
“Yes,” replied Sharon. “I just hope she stays away from the wall.”
“The wall?” asked Rita.
“Often a mare tries to push the foal out by lying flat with her butt right up against the wall. We have to go in and relocate her. It’s never easy and always annoying.”
“Stupid,” Fiona said to Dennis under her breath.
“You’re just afraid of their magic.” He pointed to a horseshoe tacked to the wall. “Their power.”
“It’s still a dumb animal.”
Dennis threw up his hands. They left Shalimar to her labor, strolling back through tea roses and foxglove. A towering, barrel-chested man emerged from the house, Doug Jeklin as blonde and ruggedly handsome as his son. They embraced.
“Been on the phone all morning he has,” groused Sharon.
Doug smiled and shook their hands. “Just bringin’ home the bacon honey. And I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll see you all for supper.”
Friendly enough, thought Fiona but unlike Dennis, very low key. Strong, silent type? Why is the wife always the extrovert? On the homefront anyway. Sharon showed them to their rooms and most importantly, the shower. Fiona went downstairs after to find her setting out a pitcher of lemonade. They chatted, Fiona chomping down on ice cubes until Sharon informed her it was bad for her teeth. They went outside to a gigantic herb wheel.
“Did Dennis tell you he dropped out of law school?”
“He was enrolled at UCLA School of Law. He was going to be an attorney.”
Dennis sauntered over, so funky she could smell him through the lavender. It was a familiar odor, after all their miles together on the road, comforting, the way her father’s had been when she was a girl. Fiona held her nose.
“She’s gathering intelligence, isn’t she?” He pointed to his mother.
Sharon rose and turned to him. “Your father’s going to grill a leg of lamb. You’ll have to help him with the coals. Doug takes his role of BBQ chef very seriously.”
Dennis nibbled on some chives. “He’s gonna rake me over the coals.” Sharon sent him inside to shower.
Rita joined them, the three chatting amiably. Dennis soon emerged from the house scrubbed, naked from the waist up, ready for anything as he motored across the compound to the van. He opened the back doors, pulled on a well-blocked cowboy hat and a shiny blue and gold hibiscus shirt.
“Hey dude!” shouted Fiona. “Wait till Dolores gets a load of you. She’ll think she died and went to heaven. Or Hawaii.”
“Everything about him is loud, isn’t it?” said Sharon.
“A real upright guy though,” said Rita.
Sharon smiled. “And highly motivated. Even if he has ‘dropped out’, something his father doesn’t understand.”
Dennis pointed to the barn. Rita caught up to him, Fiona waving them off.
“Still, he’s lucky to have such supportive parents.”
“We’ve only done what any parents would do.”
“Not any parents. ‘Parent’ isn’t a verb to mine. I disowned them.”
Startled, Sharon studied her, pity mounting. Next she’ll be telling me she’s sure my parents are worried, I should go home, back to school, blah, blah, blah. Fortunately, Rita came out of the barn and beckoned.
“I’ll stay here,” said Fiona. “No horses for me, thank you. Especially Arabian mares leaking colostrum.”
Chuckling, Sharon handed her a basket of herbs. Fiona found the twins on the verandah, smoking, gabbing. Sharon returned shortly, Rita and daughters in tow. The women convened in the cool kitchen, redolent with cumin and cucumber. Sharon assigned tasks; chopping vegetables, stirring sauce, grating cheese, as they watched Shalimar on the monitor throwing her head back at her stomach, nuzzling and licking.
“What’s she doing?” asked Dolores.
“She’s in pain.” Sharon tied her hair back, lopping the top off a red bell pepper.
Jackie stared. “Poor thing.”
“You have no idea. Still, they have it easy, compared to we humans.”
Laura giggled and pelted Nicole with a carrot peel. Nicole bonked Laura in the head with a radish.
“Girls. Settle down.” Sharon’s daughters flashed crossed eyes at each other. “The human pelvis isn’t wide enough for childbirth, due to our becoming bipedal. Which is why we have year-round estrus. Infant mortality rates have always been high, life expectancy short. ‘Til recent times anyway.”
Jackie and Dolores exchanged looks, unnerved by Sharon’s earth mother routine. Laura and Nicole calmly diced and peeled.
“Yeah,” said Fiona. “I remember all the tiny, white crosses with little lambs on them in the cemetery down home in Quebec.”
“Fifty-two hours of labor with Dennis, twenty-seven with Laura and twenty-two with Nicole.”
Rita put down her knife. “Fifty-two hours!”
“Oh yes!” Sharon laughed. “Took all weekend. Nine pounds, four ounces. I refused the Cesarean. Drugs too. Coherency’s important. For me anyway. I had to own the experience.”
“At least it got a little easier,” ventured Jackie.
“Every pregnancy’s different. They cannot be predicted, controlled, or managed, as much as the obstetricians would like you to think so.”
“I’m never having babies,” said Fiona. “My sister Maureen had a baby then fobbed it off on our mom, the same mom that messed us up so bad.”
Sharon smiled. “I hope that means you practice birth control? And never say never, Fiona. You don’t know how you’ll feel ten years down the road.”
“Ten years! No. I can’t imagine. Ten years. Gawd. I’ll be twenty-eight years old. Nearly thirty. Thirty!”
Rita patted her on the head. “Fiona is prone to all-encompassing statements.”
Sharon coordinated an incredible meal; pinto beans, corn tortillas, chips with homemade salsa, trays of enchiladas and another brimming with peaches and watermelon, Doug’s killer leg of lamb reeking of rosemary topping it all off. They feasted in twilight beneath a grape arbor, bluebottle flies bobbing in zephyrs of mesquite smoke. Doug lit Tiki torches.
“You have the coolest parents on the planet,” said Jackie.
“I’ve never seen such a sexy old guy,” whispered Dolores, giggling.
Sharon appeared with fresh strawberries and shortcake, whipped cream flowing like lava, everyone moaning they were too full.
“But you have to. They’re from my garden.”
If only Sharon were my mother . . .
And it was obvious where Dennis got his generous good nature. “But she doesn’t take crap from anybody. Including my dad.”
Doug removed his Top Of The Food Chain apron, sat down handing Junior an Anchor Steam. “So what are your plans, son? When are you going back to school?”
“What? I thought these people were your friends?”
“Get off my back.”
“I didn’t raise my son to be a bum, you know.”
Dennis sighed. “Yeah, I know Dad. I’ve heard it all before, about a million fucking times.”
“Where do you get off talking to me like that?”
Dennis rose. “Where do you get off talking to me like that?”
Doug stood. Seething, they leaned into each other, Father and son Rock ‘em-Sock ‘em robots, head to head, man to man, matching pecs tensed hard under their shirts.
“You’re ruining your life!”
“Right! My life.” Dennis thumped his chest with his fist. “Mine!”
Sharon jumped up. “Enough! Take it inside.”
Dennis suddenly dropped his shoulders, gaze falling onto the monitor. “Shalimar!”
A stampede to the barn ensued. Fiona and the twins remained sitting, content to smoke and drink under the stars, well clear of the blood and guts.
“Alright. Well, I’m going to sit down.” Sharon flopped into a chaise lounge, put her feet up. “I need a break.”
Jackie raised a glass to her. “You certainly deserve one.”
Sharon took a gulp of Chardonnay before glancing at the monitor to do a double take. “Oh oh.”
“Oh oh, what?” asked Fiona in dread. Dennis had told them about a mare once killing a foal by slamming its head against the wall.
Sharon peered like a doctor inspecting an x-ray. “It’s going to be a long night folks! Rosie’s water just broke. Laura’s horse. She wasn’t due for another week. I’d better go alert the crew.”
“Jesus H. Christ!” yelped Fiona. “Is it a full moon or something?”
Fiona and the twins sat back to watch, both mares down, Sharon in one paddock with Rosie, Doug attending to Shalimar in another, Dennis running back and forth. As predicted, Shalimar was flush against the far wall refusing to move. They coaxed, cajoled and yelled in vain. She refused to budge, foal a bulge under her thick hide. Must be part mule, thought Fiona. Finally, in desperation, Doug yarded on Shalimar’s tail and heaved her far enough away from the wall for the foal to slither out. A blast of cheers shook the barn.
“A la vida!” Fiona and the twins toasted the newborn, Rosie’s foal feted a few hours later after a tug of war with its shoulders.
Morning slowly dawned, wine bottles removed, replaced with coffee and croissants. Dennis walked over, odd expression on his face. Surely the horses were fine, after all that effort, and TLC.
“Darby’s dead!” Dennis collapsed into a chair. “They found him last night. ODd. Suicide.”
The trip back was moist, a blur of tears, twins assuming mourning gave them license to drink, more than usual. Germs blasting, Rita navigated the 101 South, Virgins and an inconsolable Dennis bawling throughout an impromptu memorial. Fiona cried, not just for Darby, but for Fiona, for all of them, having to live with such cold, hard facts of life, their cheap mortality the hardest fact of all.
“I like it so loud, my ears bleed,” she said. “Volume can be a kind of silence, you know? Nothing can penetrate. You don’t have to listen. Think. And silence is golden.”
He nodded glumly. Golden boy, she thought. Darby too. Punk Peter Pan, stirring up shit his primary purpose. Rumour had it he drove out to the desert, wrote a note, then shot himself up with a lethal dose of heroine. What a romantic.
Dennis kicked Jackie’s Ampeg. “I should have seen it! Shoulda been there for him.”
“Hey, he’s immortalized in Penelope’s movie,” said Dolores.
Dennis smiled. “Everyone drawing on him with felt markers. Remember?”
“A martyr to the cause,” offered Jackie.
“What cause?” Rita stared them down through the rear view mirror. “He was probably suicidal. Mentally ill. I’m amazed he gained as much credibility as he did, always so drunk onstage.”
“Charisma.” Jackie yelled at the back of Rita’s head. “He had charisma!”
“He was really smart too.” Dolores turned to Dennis. “I liked what he had to say.”
“Who cares what he said! Fuckin’ words don’t matter.”
Nudging his shoulder, Fiona offered her apple. Dennis cupped it in his palm, lone tear plashing off its snowy flesh.
“They matter to me. They mattered to Darby. They matter to you. ‘Cause we matter. Life matters! It’s just sad he was more afraid of life than death.”