Remember My Beauties Excerpt
Chapter 1: All the Queen’s Horses
Twenty-six years since high school. My hair has been a long jungle of gold the whole time and it’s not my hair that’s wrong. Now kitchen shears are poised just above my forehead while I pull a fistful straight up from my scalp. My eyes glitter like river rocks in the bathroom mirror.
The hand with the scissors wears the engagement and wedding rings from Wal-Mart Supercenter’s jewelry department. If you want, I tell myself, instead of cutting off your hair, you can take those off and drop them in the toilet. One half-carat total weight. Big deal. Who cares? Little glints around a fantasy. Little freaking glints. Big freaking fantasy.
But another divorce? The first one didn’t help. I’m the ball in one of those arcade games, ratcheted and battered between my parents and my daughter, two consecutive husbands, and now stepchildren. Something else has to change. Something that will make people sit back, shut up, and see that I have to be different. To save myself.
For lack of a better plan, I let my hands have their way.
Bangs, hardly an inch long, jut a path across my forehead, and my hands keep clear-cutting the forest of my hair. It drops into the sink in hanks the color of fall leaves. Some miss and drift to the floor. Like a jerky chainsaw team, my hands cut down one side, then the other, over each ear, and halfway toward the back of my head.
It was my hair that Eddie fell in love with. At least at first. He always wanted me to let it loose when we made love, even if it got in our eyes and mouths. He’d wrap it around his hands and breathe in my scented shampoo and tell me it was beautiful, I was beautiful. Those were glory days of discovering all the treasure in each other that the world had carelessly overlooked. We were drunk on disbelief in our luck.
We’ve sobered up in five years. Now part of me lives here in our tri-level in town with the nice yard, with Eddie and his daughter, Chastity, an ironic name considering how she dresses—not that he sees it. The rest of me lives ten miles out on the farm with Mama and Daddy and the best, the remainder of our stable. Of all of them, the horses are the least trouble and wellspring of purest love. By pure, I mean uncomplicated.
I’d been ripe for the picking. Sure, I had great hair, but Eddie could have been smitten with my third toe and I’d probably have bought it. A year before I met him, my parents had started truly falling apart. I was living with Carley in an apartment on Marquette Drive in town. Carley’s father had solved his child-support problem by disappearing when she was three. I managed with a Novocain- for-the-mind job: data entry in an insurance company cubicle. With morning and evening trips to the farm, I kept my parents fed, their house and laundry in order, and the horses cared for. There were a hundred problems popping up and taking over like weeds in the vegetable garden. A nursing home was the obvious answer.
“That’s where you put people to die,” Mama accused me. What I couldn’t stand up to, though, were my father’s wet eyes.
“The horses. . .” he said.
“What will happen to my beauties?”
It wasn’t a question but a moan of resignation and heartbreak.
How could he say such a thing to me? The horses are our connection: the corral, ring, and pastures our idea of an open cathedral, time with the horses our version of where two or three are gathered together. We’ve had the same experience—oh I know it used to hap- pen to him, too—seeing the horses come in from the back pasture on their own even before I call, how caring for them in the dawns and twilights can feel mysterious and reciprocal, a sense that what- ever life means, all that lives are in it together.
“Daddy, I would always keep the horses. They’re everything to me. For heaven’s sake, I bought Spice. He’s mine. But I love them all. You know that.”
“Okay” was his word at the same time he shook his head. No comfort on his face. I’ve never given him cause to wonder how much I love the horses, except that unlike him, I don’t put them before my family, regardless of what Eddie thinks. I’d have to do it all, or my father would never be peaceful.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You know what? I’ll keep you and Mama and the horses here at home. Carley and I will move in with you.” I’d always intended to keep the horses, barn, and pastures; my idea was for Daddy and Mama to rent out the house for income. The whole part about moving in to take care of them was impulse pure as honey and disaster thick as the same.
I did it, though, and it wasn’t the first nor the last dumb thing I’ve done for lack of a better alternative when I couldn’t stand the status quo any more. Carley sulked and glowered and made it clear that she’d rather bathe in horse pee than help. I set up our own apartment in the basement, which she called the bat cave.
“Give it a rest, Carley. There are no bats in the basement,” I said.
She reached for her purse and took out a small mirror, shoving it toward my face. “Take a look.”
Her real name is Carla Rose, and she hasn’t gone to charm school in the intervening years. But while she and I were living with Mama and Daddy, I could still harangue her off to seventh and then eighth grade. I’d get up early for our morning fight and fix breakfast, then arrange Mama and Daddy’s lunch and lay out their pills like little soldiers for the day. Tired before I’d even showered, remembered or forgotten a smack of lipstick, I sped to the office chronically a few minutes late. I lived for the sweet seasons when I could turn the horses out to pasture—no stalls to muck, no extra time allotted to throwing hay, scooping grain—and I could work each horse under saddle every day. For pleasure I’d ride bareback.
It was Eddie’s asking to come over to watch me ride that made me fall in love with him. He said the way I knew everything about horses was amazing, and his eyes adored me from under his thick brows and buzz cut. So I showed off a little. Instead of the jeans and the Western boots I’d taken to wearing, which were practical for barn work, I dug out the breeches and tall boots I’d kept from back when Charyzma and I competed in hunter classes. Carley must have appropriated my jacket and gloves, but I found the white show shirt and my helmet, and for all Eddie knew, the outfit was right. I set up a cavalletti and a low bar in the ring, first trotting Charyzma over the cavalletti and then, when she was happy doing that, cantering her around and asking her to jump the bar, which I set at two feet, not daring anything higher since I hadn’t kept up her jumps. I should have made the time. I could have set that bar at four feet, Charyzma had that much room to spare. She wanted to jump again, and so did I. Eddie inspired me. Back then, he cared about my Carley, too, although an irritated skunk would have given him a more pleasant reception. He said it was shameful how her father had deserted her, that he’d never do that. He was crazy about his own children, a true sign of a good man. The hole I’d dug for myself over Carley having no father, Eddie was there to fill. I admit there was exquisite electricity between us, and it was the first time I understood lust, but I trusted him, too.
When I told Carley that Eddie and I loved each other and wanted to make plans, she ramped up her opposition until it was a force of nature.
“You cannot marry that dork,” she yelled. “He wears overalls. He wears white socks and black shoes. I hate him. He hates me. I hate his stupid daughter. Chastity’s a slut.”
I couldn’t argue her last point or Eddie’s idea of dress attire. “Chassie’s only with him every other weekend. And Eddie does not hate you. He wants to love you and for us all to be a family.” I didn’t even bother to mention Rocky, Eddie’s third-grade son, because his ex-wife hardly ever let him come, always in some new uproar about child support, or she’d claim Rocky had Ebola and was representing Brazil in an ice hockey tournament, both the same weekend. “And here’s the thing, Carley. Eddie and I figure we can buy a house with both our incomes. You won’t have to live in the ‘bat cave’ anymore.” I put air quotes around bat cave but softened it with a smile. I can’t say the smile was entirely genuine, but I was trying. I thought she was just being fourteen, that special nastiness they save for their mothers. I hadn’t figured out that she was cutting school and forg- ing my name on the excuse notes, or swiping money from my purse and her blind grandfather’s sock drawer.
She and I were in the basement at the time, my parents upstairs, doubtless eavesdropping on every word through the register, though I kept a hush on. I’d fashioned a nice place for us down there. A blue couch on a beige carpet remnant, a coffee table, and two end tables with lamps. Our own TV. Bright red-and-blue tapes- try on the wall to hide painted cinder blocks. Silk plants, some red candles. A refrigerator and a microwave against the far back wall. The one separate room was Carley’s. An unused desk with good lighting, carpet littered with her clothing, a twin bed rumpled with pillows and comforter. There wasn’t much natural light, but we did have privacy. Still, Carley did nothing but complain as if she were being paid by the word.
But then, her neck reddening, she said, “And who’s gonna take care of Grandma and Grandpa? What about the horses? I wanna stay here.”
She was a pretty girl back then—still is, if you can get beyond the piercings, which were just for normal earrings at first. Now, barely six years later, it’s up to twelve in her left ear, seven in her right, and a new horror in her right eyebrow. To my mind, she looks like the victim of a nail-gun assault. And she’s taken to dyeing her blond hair black, which makes her fair skin look ghostly and cloudlike. She’s not yet found a way to mess up her eyes—big, and a good sky blue like mine—except to imitate a raccoon, courtesy of white eye shadow, black liner, and mascara applied to full theatrical effect.
My plan was to stay calmly rational with Carley while explaining the arrangements. Eddie and I had discussed it and been delusional enough to believe that would be effective. “They qualify for County Eldercare Health Services,” I said. “They’ll have an aide here four hours, every day. Meals on Wheels, too. I’m keeping them on that. I’ll come before work to give them breakfast and their morning pills, and Meals on Wheels will provide dinners. So I’ll be checking on them and taking care of the horses, of course, and Nadine says she’ll help with Grandma and Grandpa, too,” I said, knowing full well that the last was laughable but feeling the need for one more item to pile on the excellence of this plan.
“Oh right. Aunt Nadine. She won some daughter of the year award recently, didn’t she? She’ll be fan-tastic. So you’ll be doing it with your new lover while some country strangers are taking care of Grandma and Grandpa?”
“That’s county. County Eldercare Health Services. Your concern for your grandparents is touching. I just don’t know how I could get by without all your help.” I’ve never charged for sarcasm since it comes to me so naturally.
My calm and rational approach was derailing; I tried to fix it. “Baby, come here.” I opened my arms. “I didn’t mean that.” I wanted to cradle her the way I used to when problems required a Band- Aid and a Popsicle, when fun was blowing dandelion fluff around a melon sunset, making firefly lanterns, and driving into town for ice cream. I so miss how she loved me.
“Let go, honey,” Eddie always says to me. “Kids change.” But I’ll never stop hoping to get her back. I taught her to ride before she was old enough to start in 4-H. She has the gift. When she was eight, Carley raised Charyzma’s foal. She showed him for four years at the Kentucky State Fair. Her bulletin board spilled first- and second-place ribbons. Pot and cocaine never occurred to me while trophies were lining up like a shiny cavalry on her dresser.
“You don’t give a shit about anything but yourself,” she sneered, pulling out of my reach. “You just can’t wait to shack up with that asshole.”
She might as well have been a stinging wasp, and my urge to slap was just as reflexive and wrongheaded. But that’s what I did. I don’t think I slapped her hard. It takes thought to wind up and put power in a slap. But I saw her pause and take the time to decide: yes, she would. She drew back to hit me. What had begun as a skid out of control was dropping into slow motion, something dangerous that wouldn’t be excusable as impulse.
I shouted, “Don’t you dare!” She dared. I grabbed her wrist, staggering backward under the force of her thrust. I went down, half over the coffee table, half onto the floor, between it and the couch, pulling Carley on top of me. That was an accident; I’d grabbed her wrist to save myself.
The table skittered to one side, and the couch jarred enough to knock over the ginger-jar lamp, which shattered on the cement floor. Carley screamed and started flailing, arms and legs like a windmill pummeling me.
“Let me up! Stop!” I gasped, trying to free my arms to push her off me.
Three things happened: her elbow caught me in the throat, her weight started to suffocate me, and the door at the top of the stairs opened.
“What’s going on down there?” Daddy called.
My only thought was to keep him from coming down. “It’s okay, Daddy. Everything’s fine. Just close the door.” But I couldn’t get enough air, so I was rasping.
Carley shouted, “Grandpa, she’s fucking trying to kill me,” while she thrashed, her voice trumping mine.
Daddy didn’t hesitate a beat. “Don’t know what took her so long.
I’d a done it last year.” He slammed the door.
At that Carley went rigid as a death wish. Then the fight leaked out of her. She tried to climb off me, but her limbs hadn’t the will to work.
She was crying. I got my palms on the floor and managed to leverage myself to a sitting position, which bumped Carley down into my lap. I stroked her head and worked my arms under and around her. My hair fell forward over my shoulders like a blanket over the two of us, and I let it be. Carley, my baby, my beauty.
“Oh sweetheart, he didn’t mean that. He didn’t mean it.” My mouth tasted like bad milk around the lie. My father has never said such a thing to anyone. Mama’s the bigmouth.
“He hates me,” she sobbed. “I didn’t know. I thought Grandpa loved me, he let me train Charyzma’s foal.”
“He doesn’t hate you, honey. The foal was a long time ago. He may be tired of back talk or he may be tired of you not helping now, but that’s different from hate.”
Carley was having none of it. She raised her head from my lap, face smeared, eyes and nose running. “He hates me and I don’t want to stay here anymore.”
“What do you want to do? You don’t want me to marry Eddie and move, but you don’t want to stay here.”
“I don’t care. Go ahead. Marry Eddie if it’ll get us the hell out of here.”
There were twenty smart things I could have said and another twenty I could have done. But I was so tired, and this seemed like a crazy wedding gift from Daddy. I’m ashamed to say I accepted it. I thought Eddie would help me change Carley’s life, even though she was too young and dumb to know it.
“All right, honey. I’ll marry Eddie and we’ll move out of here.
We’ll get a new start.”
I meet my own eyes in the mirror. I’ve cut almost the front half of my hair. Now that the wild flourish that usually falls around my face has been hacked away, I see old-lady lines around my eyes. I hardly recognize myself. A fragment from a song I used to know comes to me. “Wasted on the Way.” If that isn’t the title, it should be, at least for my life. If I could remember the words, maybe I’d know what to do. It was something like . . . I should’ve started long ago. . . . I look around the bathroom in that way you do, idly, when you’re just trying to remember something. I see the toilet seat. Up. Again. That’s it: the words are about water. Water . . . or time . . . going under a bridge. I wait, trying to retrieve it. And then I start to hear the song from somewhere in my lost self: let water carry it away. So I take another hank of the hair Eddie loves, saw it off, and drop it into the yawning mouth of the toilet. I’ve started to hum the melody, enjoying my work, when I hear Eddie tromping upstairs and down the hallway toward our bedroom. Our beagle runs ahead to see what’s going on in the bathroom just as I shut the door to hide what my hands are doing. The door hits Copper on the side of the head. He yelps, and I have to open it to make sure he’s all right. “Holy shit!” Eddie gapes at the ha ir on the floor, on the sink, on my shoulders, and my half-cut head. “What the hell are you doing? Oh no, no! What are you doing? You can’t cut off your hair. You promised.”
He sinks to his knees, frantically gathering what’s fallen, looks up at me, pleading, raising the fallen hair like a prayer in his two hands. Tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please stop. Please. Can you put it back? You know, like make those extension things with it? Those things Chassie wants? I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Eddie stayed on his knees in the bathroom pleading apologies until Jewel’s fit passed and she put the scissors down.
“Oh my God, are you nuts?” he said then, standing and brushing hair from his pants. His voice rose, upset. “Have you gone lunatic crazy?” The dog started barking, as he did when anyone got loud. His wife’s face told him that he wasn’t being supportive, like she’d told him a thousand times he needed to be. He tried again. “I mean, you can fix this, can’t you?”
Jewel picked up the scissors. “Wait, honey,” he said. “Maybe that didn’t come out right. I’m sorry.”
Jewel sighed as if she was giving up but kept her grip on the scissors. “Eddie, I can’t fight with you anymore. I just can’t. It’s my hair, she’s my daughter, they’re my horses. It’s all the same difference.” She was looking at herself in the mirror, not at him.
Eddie was baffled until he remembered that they’d been arguing. What was it about? The checkbook was low. He’d said she should quit buying Carley food ’cause it just supports her habit—some- thing like that? She said it’s more important than Chassie’s acrylic nails. Jesus, what else did he say? It’s a money-sucking waste to keep the horses? Yeah, okay. But not a word about her hair. “Carley? The horses? Is that why you”—don’t step on a land mine—“did this?”
She spoke slowly, like he was the demented one. “I’m a person, Eddie. I’m doing what I decide, not you. Can you grasp that?”
The glare of the bathroom lights over the mirror was hurting his eyes and making it hard to see her face well. She’d been at her folks’ house with the horses earlier and was still in her barn clothes; a faint horsey smell came from her jeans. They always ate dinner late because Jewel took care of her parents and the horses on her way home from work. It hadn’t started out that way. When they got married, Jewel was supposed to just take care of the horses, but Jewel’s mother had fussed about and with each aide the county agency sent in, and Jewel had ended up having to do the work anyway. Finally she’d figured she might as well get the pay for it. So she’d gotten certified, and now it brought in a sweet extra sum, enough that they’d bought a nicer house. When Chassie wanted to move in, they’d had the space. Jewel had been dead against it—claimed it wasn’t fair since he wouldn’t let Carley live with them anymore—but he’d argued that his daughter was no druggie and therefore a different case entirely.
Not that he really believed tough love was going to change Carley’s drug habits: the truth he didn’t want to tell Jewel was that he just yearned for a normal life, and he didn’t think druggies were any more likely to change than nutcases like his ex. Jewel ought to look at her crackhead sister, Nadine, for one example. Whatever. It all seemed fairly black and white to him, in addition to the true fact that the horses took up a ton of time that Jewel could be at home, and she was spending a bunch of money on them, too. His eyes worked just fine on the checkbook deductions and balance.
“Do you get it?” Jewel said, and he saw that she’d rotated the scissors so the point was toward him. He didn’t know that he under- stood or didn’t; he wasn’t sure what she was talking about. He was dumbfounded by what she’d done to her hair and by the shears aimed at his gut. He wondered if she was high. He’d never known her to use anything.
“Yes, yes, honey, I understand,” he lied softly. “I understand. Please, just put the scissors down.”
He led Jewel’s gaze with his own to her hand, pulled her eyes down deliberately, watched her realize what he meant her to see. When she did, he saw that she was startled, and she laid the scissors on the bathroom counter. Finally he was getting her on track. Now Eddie tried to lead her eyes to the mirror so she would see what she’d done to her hair. No luck this time. She brushed past him out of the bathroom without a word, Copper at her heels.
Eddie started to follow but thought better of it when she slammed the bedroom door right as Copper’s tail cleared it. This wasn’t like his Jewel, not at all. He turned and took the five steps back to the hallway bathroom—she’d not used the one off their bedroom—and surveyed the proof of insanity lying on the counter and floor and in the toilet. The place looked like a salon that hadn’t been swept in two days. On his knees again, Eddie picked up the clumps he’d already held and dropped, and as much as he could of the rest of it, gathering and arranging the strands in his big left hand. When they made love he’d wrap his hands in this very hair and nuzzle into Jewel’s neck for the smell of it, like fruit. It was her, his wife, and he wanted to breathe her in and in and in. Before they’d married, she’d promised him she wouldn’t cut her hair. She’d promised.
Eddie had two dead parents, two child support payments (even though he had one of the children himself), a for-shit job in a mill, and an ex-wife who was a mutant cross between a bitter bitch and a dangerous whack job. (“Bipolar disorder,” according to Chassie, which Eddie considered just another piece of crap excuse. Chassie said her mother wouldn’t take the medication. Eddie said, “Well, your mother is more than one sandwich short of a picnic.” Chassie got huffy then, but the truth was that even Chassie avoided Lana when she could get away with it.) Jewel was, well, of course he loved her, but more: Jewel was Eddie’s heart, his good. He had Jewel and because of Jewel, he had Chassie and the means and place to have his son, Rocky, who was now saying he wanted to come live with them, a little fact Eddie hadn’t sprung on Jewel yet. Jewel couldn’t be going all crazy on him now.
He left her alone, figuring that was temporarily safest, while he headed for the kitchen, lifted a beer from the refrigerator as quietly as he could, opened the can, and pondered a course of action. He tried to keep his mind off her hair, which he’d carried down the half flight of their tri-level, rested momentarily on the breakfast bar while he fetched the beer, and hunted an envelope in the built-in desk. The wallpaper behind it was red with a weird yellow scroll thing at the top. He’d disliked it when Jewel picked it out, and tonight it struck him as nuts. A white business envelope wasn’t nearly big enough for all the hair, which broke his heart again. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Jewel together again,” he whispered and, suddenly broken himself, gave way to tears.
He’d never made it past the family room couch, the blue one that Jewel had moved from the basement apartment at her parents’ house. By the time he woke in the morning, too many crushed beer cans on the table, the light in the room told him it was mid-morning. It was Saturday: Jewel would have left for her parents’ place by seven.
The small herd was grazing near the larger pond, which was in the far back pasture. April bluegrass was longest where the pond was spring-fed, although both pastures were glorious, surrounded by white Kentucky board fencing. The horses’ ears flicked occasionally toward the quiet road, out of sight. Any sound might be Her. They used to start moving to the front pasture toward the corral anytime they heard The Noise—like many, many hooves on gravel—right by the house, but Spice, a black Arab gelding, learned to differentiate. Now they waited for Spice to know if it was Her before they started toward the barn, even though Charyzma, a bay Thoroughbred, was the dominant mare and claimed the lead.
Spice raised his head, ears forward. The Right Sound. Now, walk on. When She called, lilting the sounds to summon them on the breeze, they would already be most of the way to Her. She’d start calling anyway, and She’d be carrying some apples or carrots. Sugar lumps. Sometimes Red, a roan Quarter Horse gelding, or Moonbeam, a white and black Appaloosa mare, would try to be first, which Charyzma would or wouldn’t bother to correct, but Spice didn’t care. She always slipped him an extra sugar when She was brushing him down or after She cleaned his feet. Sometimes a stone would be lodged in one hoof, up against the tender frog, and he understood what She did for him when She picked it out or removed burrs from his coat. So when She arrived, he nickered his happiness, and when She hugged his neck and kissed his face, he nuzzled Her. Sometimes when She came, She’d cling to each of them a long time. If it was warm, She might soak them with water and scrub a new scent onto them, then more water and a good rub with cloth, and finally brushing. She’d stay while the sun slid across the sky, and She’d ride each of them, maybe bareback, maybe under saddle. Spice was patient by nature, even when he and two others were waiting in the paddock while She took Charyzma in the ring to work her and then Moonbeam. Charyzma didn’t like to be separated from Moonie. But She knew about this and kept them from each other’s sight when She exercised those two. Of course She knew. She’d been there through every season since they had been colts and fillies. She talked to them all always, and always, before She left, Her arms would be around each of their necks again, Her face against theirs, stroking them, each in turn. To make Her sound like the creek down in the woods when it played so light and easy with the rocks, Spice would nod his head softly against Hers when She put Her face on his to talk to him. He was always last before She left, and always she left with the sides of Her mouth turned up. He knew Her, too.