“I bathed him, picked him up, and he slipped right through my arms, head first,” Ruth whispered. “The thump sounded like a cantaloupe hitting the floor.”
I was at Ruth’s house in La Barbaria Canyon near Santa Fe, two days after my law partners confronted me about my poor attitude. We had just finished dinner, the rain had stopped, and her 28-year-old son Billy had gone out to her Mercedes to get the groceries and the half-gallon of hearty Burgundy. As a new lawyer, I had handled her divorce two years ago, and we were friends, but her intensity and our 15-year age difference made me wary of anything more intimate; still, being single and carefree, the thought had crossed my mind.
“I can’t describe the horror of Billy’s glazed eyes looking up at me,” Ruth said. “He didn’t move or even cry. I was afraid to touch him, so I called an ambulance. The paramedic said it looked like a mild concussion; the X-ray at the hospital showed nothing, but Billy still has a flat place on the back of his head.”
Ruth poured another glass of wine and leaned against the kitchen counter. She wore a white embroidered peasant blouse, no bra, black velour pants, and strappy black sandals. She had the air of a woman in charge of more than her life.
“Travis, promise never to say anything to Billy about this. I’m only telling you so you’ll understand.”
Billy came in and Ruth quickly turned away. He was thin, wiry, and his dark eyes nestled behind heavy eyebrows, giving the impression he was always worried. Although he had eaten dinner, Billy made a bread, butter, and jelly sandwich.
“Billy eats like it’s his last meal,” Ruth said. She grinned, took two cold baked potatoes from the refrigerator, and put them on his plate. “When he was little, we thought he raised tapeworms.”
“Can I help it if I’m hungry?” Billy asked. His face flushed.
Ruth poured wine for all of us.
“Billy, I’ve changed my mind about the brick patio. I’ve decided I want flagstone set in dyed cement.”
“Hey, I bought a new brick cutter today. Thanks for telling me. Why the hell do you always change your mind?” His lower lip quivered and his left eye drooped.
“Flagstone is permanent and prettier,” she said. “Remember, I want this place to be beautiful, a showplace.”
“Whatever.” Billy shrugged. “I’m going to get my truck out of the mud.” He grabbed a full package of Oreo cookies, slammed the screen door, and headed down the muddy driveway.
“Sometimes the sound of my baby’s head hitting the floor haunts me in the night,” Ruth said. “Even though it was thirty years ago, that sound still hides in the shadows and jumps out at me.” She pushed her fingers through her graying black hair and then gathered dishes from the table.
“He’s brilliant, you know,” she added. “He started reading Scientific American and astronomy journals when he was thirteen. I bought him a telescope, but after he memorized the constellations, he got bored and smashed it. Travis, I need your help.”
“I’m a little woozy. Excuse me for a minute.” I stumbled outside, took some deep breaths, and whizzed behind a tree. On the way back in, I stopped when I heard a low whinny. A white horse stared at me from the trees. He tossed his mane, and with a flick of his tail, turned, snorted, and ambled down the center of the driveway.
“There’s a white horse outside,” I said to Ruth.
“Oh, that’s the Tafoya’s horse,” Ruth said. “The bastard thinks he owns the place.” She sat across from me and folded her hands on the table.
“Travis, I want you to help me with Billy and our building company. We need someone to manage the business. He has trouble with people, and he can’t get organized. He keeps promising, but nothing works around here. He’s always angry.”
I squinted at her and tried to focus. She glanced back. She never looked at me for more than a moment.
“What do I know about managing a building company?” I asked. She filled my wine glass. I heard the mournful howl of a coyote in the distance, feeling a cold breeze at my back.
“You told me you want to change—to slow down and get out of the divorce mill. I need you to help Billy succeed and to help get this place in order. When we fix the dam and get the lake back it will be beautiful, don’t you think?”
“I remember Billy cut the dam last fall. It isn’t fixed yet?”
“He’s installing an overflow culvert and selling gravel from the arroyo. The backhoe broke last winter, and now the loader has two flat tires. He’s always waiting for parts, or something. Travis, it never ends.”
Ruth was right. I needed a change. We had met three years earlier at the community college, where I’d taken her class on Psychology of the Adult, a time when I was searching for answers. Over coffee one night, we’d talked for hours, and the next day she’d hired me to handle her divorce.
“I’ve been putting it off,” she said. “I want it finished.”
Her divorce had been easy. She had left home in Phoenix a year prior and filed a complaint against her husband for emotional abuse. He wanted out too. When I called him, he simply asked, “How much?”
“Three-thousand-a-month alimony, a two-hundred-thousand-dollar trust fund, a house in Santa Fe, and my fees,” I said.
“Fine,” he said. “Send me the papers.”
In the spring, I took her class on Broken Families. We often talked at lunch. I had told her I felt adrift in my work, disinterested most of the time, and I couldn’t sleep.
“You always seem so confident,” Ruth had said that night. “I would have never guessed you’re in such turmoil.”
“Well, I went to a men’s conference two months ago, and it affected me. We talked about a spiritual bond that runs among men. We even read some poetry, and I realized I’m ashamed. Can you guess how many men I’ve screwed over?”
“You’re an outstanding divorce attorney. That’s no reason to hate yourself for being good at what you do.”
“Let’s face it. I get women out of marriages, and I take their husbands for all I can get. I’m no more than a hired gun.”
“Hey, I hired you, and you saved my life.”
“Right now, I live in irony. For years I’ve believed the law is alive, that it grows and evolves, and that the world is better for it, but the men I screw over end up bitter and disgraced. For them the law is dead, and I leave them wounded; it makes me feel dead—so there you have it: a law that’s alive, and a lawyer who’s dead.”
“You’re feeling contrite?”
Ruth listened attentively, but a shift in her eyes gave me the impression she was sizing me up, preparing to pull me into her orbit. She fidgeted, moving one hand to her hair and the other to her mouth, as if to calm a growing urgency. I could sense her attempts at guessing my feelings, capturing my soul with a single word, as she often did with others. She radiated warmth, luring people into intimacy a little at a time, like chirping baby birds following behind their mother, eating fresh seeds along the trail.
“The truth is I hate my job,” I had told her. “Things are not good with my soul; I feel like jumping off something, but I swear I don’t know what.”
“Worried?” she had said.
Now tonight, sitting in Ruth’s kitchen, moonlight touching my shoulder, I saw a path forward, a chance to leave my divorce practice and try something new.
“We can do this inexpensively,” she said excitedly. “You rent out your house, move a mobile home out here, and we can remodel the garage for an office. Bring your office furniture, and I’ll pay for materials. You and Billy can do the remodel. You don’t have to worry about money. I can take care of all of us until things get going. Thanks to you, I have a good income. What do you think?”
“That’s quite an offer.”
Ruth offered to buy the property two years ago. Billy and I walked the canyon with her and the agent, and I remembered the sense of peace that seemed to hover over everything.
“I’m beginning to understand,” Ruth had said that day. “I have a duty to bring order and beauty to things.” She walked slowly and touched the cedars. “It’s like a covenant with Mother Nature.”
For me, the red-winged blackbirds, bulrushes swaying in the breeze, and the brilliant blue sky created a hopeful sense of peace. As the sun sparkled on the water, Ruth had turned and smiled at the swooshing of a heron’s wings. She bit her fingernail and looked at the clouds.
“The house needs major work,” said Billy.
“This is the place. I can hear it. I can feel it. Look at the cattails. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.” Ruth sighed and clasped her hands to her heart.
The agent read from her listing form and pointed with a crimson fingernail. “It’s a hundred twenty-five acres altogether. It goes from the top of that cliff over there to the top of those trees to the west, and back down to the gate. It includes the little cabin next to the lake, the old house, the little guest house, and the garage.”
Ruth followed Billy to the house. A frog croaked on a lily pad near the dam. I took a deep breath, smelled sage, and if a poet, I could have written of a friendly greeting from the waving purple asters.
“There’s no place like this in all of Santa Fe County,” said the agent. “A year-round spring feeds the stream from up the canyon, so the lake stays full. It’s about fourteen feet deep at the dam.”
Once we crossed the threshold, the house creaked with age. Billy looked around and shook his head.
“It’s a mess, Mother. It needs a roof. There’s no bathroom, and the kitchen is just a rusty old sink. The windows are all broken, and rain has washed away the adobes by the canales. Don’t be stupid.”
“Just imagine the finished house,” said Ruth. “We’ll surround it with patios, raised gardens, an iris collection, and white and purple mums. The apricot trees can go there, and the peach trees will line the road.”
“Mother,” Billy said, “there’s no power or water. We’ll have to terrace that slope to even drive a car up here.”
“Will they take a hundred and fifty thousand?” asked Ruth.
“Probably, if it’s cash,” the agent said.
Ruth nodded. “Write up the papers. Billy can live with me and help fix up the property. I can help him get started with something. He loves the mountains.” She turned to her son. “I’m so happy, Billy. Excited?”
He had looked past her. Billy didn’t look people in the eyes either.
“Sure,” he’d said. “I can’t wait to bust my ass on that house.”
I felt confused, but Ruth’s job offer seemed irresistible. Within a few days, I took the plunge, bought a forty-foot green and white used mobile home, moved to the canyon and dove into the work. Ruth cooked for us at the main house.
“Some more wine?” she asked one night as she stood behind me and rubbed my shoulders. “You seem tense. Are you all right?”
My body ached and I felt heavy.
“I’m okay.” I stood up, watching the gray dusk slip into the house. As I turned around, Ruth hugged me with her full, warm body, swayed her hips, and pressed her thighs against mine. She nuzzled the hollow at the top of my shoulder; her lips felt like a spider creeping up my neck, and her skin smelled musty, like a trunk filled with old clothes. “Shush,” she said, “don’t say anything.” We stood still like that for a while, and I kept my arms at my sides, stiff and straight, like insect legs. I heard the wind whining in the trees, as if it was searching for a wide-open place to gust. As Billy drove up, I pulled away from Ruth and turned on the lights.
“I’m going for a walk,” I said.
“Wait, this might help.” Ruth handed me a pint of tequila from the cabinet.
I stumbled into the woods, lay under a tree, watched the stars between the branches, and drank until I shivered with cold. On the way to my trailer, the Tafoya’s white horse snorted and startled me; I tripped and scraped my arm on a cedar branch. My arm dripped blood, and I felt a hard knot form in my stomach. I started to shout at the horse, but nausea gripped me, and I doubled over as sour wine and tequila came up through my nose and mouth and splattered on the driveway. The white horse watched me gasp for breath, then raised his head and trotted off into the night, as if he was disgusted.
Over the next month, Billy and I worked together, drank tequila, and talked about houses, sex, loaders, and dump trucks. We got some remodel jobs, and I discovered I enjoyed working with my hands. Over the weeks, I became a damn good painter and a decent ceramic tile setter. Every evening we went to Ruth’s house for dinner and wine. At the end of the second month, we celebrated with an Italian dinner.
“You look better,” Ruth said. She put a casserole of lasagna and a new bottle of Chianti on the table. “This change appears to agree with you. Are you pleased?”
I shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“Billy’s a good teacher if you ask him questions.”
“I’m glad you’re handling the money,” Billy said. “I either have money or I don’t, and I don’t keep track in between.” He waved a forkful of lasagna at me. “I wish I could get twelve hundred dollars to get the backhoe fixed.” Billy said. “Then we could keep the money we pay those other guys to dig water lines and footings. We could pay for the backhoe with the money we’d save.”
“What do you think Travis?” Ruth asked.
“We’ll need a loan. Will you cosign for the company?”
Ruth beamed. She always appeared happy when she could remove Billy’s obstacles. “Sure. This company has to grow. We’re not going to get anywhere sitting around and waiting for things to happen.”
After eleven months, we had finished our sixth remodel job. We were two weeks late, and we’d lost $2,000 dollars. On the next job we lost $3,000.
“It’s a management problem,” Billy said. “The coordination and timing are off.”
“I don’t think so,” I countered. “Your estimates are too low. It costs more to do things than you think.”
“Bullshit,” Billy said. “People keep changing what they want.”
“Like I’ve said, we have to add a clause to cover changes in the contracts. If we can’t price things right, we shouldn’t bid the jobs.” I dug my fists hard into my pockets. “I’m tired of working hard just to lose money.”
“Then just leave,” Billy shouted.
Ruth stepped in. “Just take it easy. You guys will make it up with the next job. Let’s go to dinner and celebrate our first year.”
“There’s nothing to celebrate,” I said. “This business is not working. Don’t you guys get it? By all measures, we are failing.”
“Come on,” Ruth said, “let’s go out to dinner.”
Two months later, in April, a full moon greeted Ruth as she pulled her gray Mercedes up to the gate, parked, and dug her rubber boots out of the trunk. She had been to a professional conference on addictive substances in Dallas. As I looked out my window, I saw the muddy road and went out to help carry her suitcase.
“I can’t even drive to my home in this mud,” Ruth said. “Why the hell can’t Billy put down some gravel from the arroyo?”
We looked toward the dam. His dump truck and loader were down by the water, and the truck was partially loaded with gravel. Timbers blocked the loader bucket up in the air.
“He said the hydraulic pump broke,” I said. “We’ve had rain every day since you left, and he had to order parts.”
Ruth sighed, and we trudged up the muddy road, counting the 200 yards to the house. She leaned forward as she walked and I could hear the black mud sucking at her boots.
“Look,” she said. “Someone parked that truck on my lilac bush. I don’t see the cats anywhere. The house is dark. Is Billy gone?”
“He went to visit someone in Chimayo,” I said. “I’ve been working on a tile-setting job for the last three days.”
I saw sweat on her forehead by the time we reached the house. A cloud passed, and a burst of moonlight revealed the wide-open front door.
“I haven’t been to the house since you left,” I said.
She pushed the door and turned on a light, revealing a scene from hell. Two cats chewed on a dying rabbit on the carpet; another cat rolled an apple off the table, the thud making Ruth jump. Blue, shiny animal guts dried by the lamp, and the smell of cat urine stung my nose. Piles of newspapers lay everywhere, and mud clods formed paths to the kitchen, bathroom, and easy chairs. The plants all drooped; a rat scurried out the door with a squeal. Shirts, jeans, and socks hung everywhere; dirty pans and grease covered the kitchen stove, and crusted dishes filled the sinks. Milk cartons, cottage cheese, jelly, honey, cereal, and cracker crumbs littered the counter. Bite marks scarred the corners of a stick of butter on a blue porcelain plate.
She dropped her carry-on bag, took a deep breath, wrinkled her nose, and put both hands on her heart. “I asked Billy to take care of things,” she said. “He told me to not worry. Why does he hate me so?”
“I’m sorry; he probably planned on having everything cleaned up before you got home.”
Ruth sat down, took off her boots, put her face in her hands, and sobbed. I left her alone.
Soon I heard Ruth yelling, banging on my door.
“Travis! Help me get that horse out of here!”
I came out, grabbed a broom, and ran out in front of the horse. Ruth stayed by the road, and I moved along slowly, waving the broom, as the horse trotted out the gate.
“I don’t know why that gate comes open,” she said. “Billy says he fixed it. That horse is sinister; he finds my plants and eats everything new. All I want is some peace and beauty around here. Travis, sometimes I feel like shooting that damn horse.”
I offered to drive Ruth to the nursery for some more plantings. We bought two dozen one-gallon peach trees and a dozen two-gallon apricots; we worked until after dark replacing the eaten ones and planting others along the dam. The horse ate all the new trees Monday evening. Billy, Ruth, and I chased it down the road. We opened the gate, shooed him out, and found the break in the fence.
Tears ran down Ruth’s cheeks; she began shaking.
“Look, that stupid horse just walked along the road and ate every tree. I’m sick of this. Billy, why the hell can’t you fix the fence?”
“Horses like green plants,” said Billy. “What can I say? It’s how they are.”
“I don’t ask much, you know,” Ruth said.
It seemed as though an epic battle had emerged between Ruth and the horse, a battle far greater than I could imagine. On Wednesday, the horse found its way in again and ate every new tree on the west side of the dam. Ruth ran out of the house screaming.
“After all I’ve done! The least you guys can do is keep that fucking horse out of here! Don’t you see what he’s doing to me? All my work—everything is ruined.”
Billy glanced at me with the hint of a smile. “Angry?”
We stepped slowly along the entire fence line looking for breaks. We tightened loose wire, braced up old posts, stapled new wire to trees, and even rehung the gate. I looked at him. “Pleased?”
“Sometimes I’m pleased when I make Mother happy.” He shook the chain on the gate. “That ought to do it.”
We shuffled slowly up the driveway in the dark.
“The stars are close tonight,” Billy said. “Look, you can see Cassiopeia by the North Star. I’ve always liked the North Star. Whenever I feel lost I just wait until dark and look for it.”
“I don’t know, Billy. I’m uneasy,” I said. “Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing. Do you ever worry?”
“Not much,” Billy said. “Do you see the North Star at the end of the Little Dipper?”
“Yes. It’s incredibly bright.”
“Okay, now look down a ways. Do you see Cassiopeia, those five stars that make the shape of a ‘W’?”
“Yes, I see it.”
“Follow the right side of the ‘W’ over past one bright star,” Billy said. “That’s the bottom of Cepheus, the King. Keep going to the very bright star, and that’s the head of Cygnus, the Swan. You can see the wings. See it? Right there in the Swan is Cygnus X-1, the closest black hole. What do you think about black holes?”
“I don’t understand black holes. My God, you can see a lot tonight.”
“Black holes have intense gravity and they suck everything into them that comes near them. Asteroids, gases, stellar dust, stars, and hydrogen atoms—everything gets pulled in.”
I had never heard Billy talk about stars. In the darkness, I sensed his shining eyes gazing straight at me. He lifted both arms to the sky, as if he was going to embrace it all.
“There’s a force around a black hole called an event horizon. If you stay outside it, you can go on by, but if you get near it or cross it, watch out. You’ll disappear forever. The gravity is so powerful it even bends light passing by. I believe if you go into a black hole, then you come out the other side to a negative universe, the reverse of this one. Can you imagine the perfect reverse of us?”
“The perfect reverse?” I asked.
“Yeah. Imagine if we were everything we’re not.”
“That’s a scary thought, Billy. What’s going to happen with our business? Think we can reverse it?”
“I don’t know. You need to talk to Mother about increasing the line of credit at the bank. We need more money. I want to buy a truck from a guy in Pecos.”
“Why don’t you talk to her? She’s your mother.”
“You’re better at it. Besides, she’s not pleased with me, with the horse eating her peach trees.”
“Are you kind of down about it?”
“I hate it when she blames me,” Billy said. “You know how to cheer her up.”
“Why don’t we fix the dam?” I said. “She’s been waiting over a year.”
“We need money for pipe, shut-off parts, and an arc welder. I need to fix the loader bucket. I need tires. It’s not that easy to fix the dam. It’s not that easy.”
He picked up a crowbar from the side of the road and hurled it at the dump truck in the arroyo. The forlorn clang of steel on steel echoed in the darkness. I felt dismayed, and wondered if the winds of misfortune had pursued Billy and blown into his soul, winds determined to scatter his dreams. The certainty surrounding his misfortune seemed alive, like a hawk hunting for rabbits, folding its wings and diving, tearing any new dream to strips of flesh and puffs of fur.
Later that night Billy pounded on my door. “Travis, come help me. It’s the horse.”
I dressed and ran out. Billy was chasing the horse up and down the fence line, but the animal would not go near the gate. He trotted by Billy, saw me, wheeled around, and stood in the road in the reflected moonlight. The horse planted his front feet and stared at us from 20 yards away. I looked at Billy and saw the shotgun.
“Okay,” Billy said, “I’m going to scare the shit out of him.” Billy raised the twelve-gauge and fired. The crack echoed through the canyon. The horse glanced at him for a moment, and then crumpled to the ground, eyes open. We ran to the horse. He pawed and struggled to get up, and then his head fell with a thump.
“I only wanted to scare him,” Billy said.
“He’s dead,” I said. “For sure he’s dead.”
Billy got the two-ton Ford flatbed dump truck and backed up to the dead horse. We hooked a come-along to the front of the bed and tied the cable around the horse’s front legs. We lowered the bed to the ground and worked the come-along a few inches at a time. Getting a limp, 900-pound horse into a truck is not easy. I held the head near the legs as Billy pumped the handle of the come-along. The blood running from the horse’s neck helped his shoulder slide onto the bed just as the bones in his forelegs broke. We had to tie the cable up around the knees before we could pull any farther. The cable cut deep into the skin, but it held. His blood looked black in the moonlight, like motor oil draining from an engine. The night whispered with strange sounds.
We decided to take the horse to the mountains and dump it in an arroyo. We knew a spot on the way to Glorieta Mesa, but we had to slow way down and drive quietly past the last few homes along the back road. I looked back and watched the horse’s blood run out on the road behind us, along with clumps of manure speckled with green pieces of Ruth’s peach trees, suggesting the horse defiantly sustained the battle, even in its death.
We drove home slowly in the gray-streaked early dawn. I was exhausted, and found an unfinished pint of tequila under the seat.
“Want a hit off this tequila?” I took a long swallow.
“Billy, what do you think this means?”
“It means the horse is dead and won’t ever come back.”
“You know what? To me, it’s like divorce. When the judge grants a decree, it’s final.” I took another drink. The tequila smelled like horse urine, and I opened the door, leaned out, and threw up on the road.
“You okay?” Billy asked.
“I’m okay now,” I said. “In the decree we’d write, ‘This marriage is null and void, vacated, set aside, and held for naught.’ One time I wrote ‘this marriage is over,’ but the judge corrected me.”
“I guess ‘over’ isn’t final enough for judges, huh?”
“That’s what they told me. But I still think ‘over’ is enough, don’t you?”
“Yup, it’s over when it’s over.”
It was still dark as we drove up the road and through the bloody puddle. Ruth stood at the front door in her white terrycloth bathrobe and slippers, drinking coffee.
“Are you guys okay? What happened?”
“Well, I took care of things for good. That white horse won’t eat any more peach trees,” Billy said.
“Did you fix the fence?” asked Ruth.
“I killed him, Mother. I killed him for you.”
Our eyes met for a moment, and then darted away; Ruth’s eyes seemed old and tired.
I looked up at the sky as a cloud covered the moon, searching for Cassiopeia and Cygnus, the Swan. I inhaled a deep breath of the crisp night, turned, and walked steadily down the driveway, as if driven by the quiet breeze pushing through the cedar trees. I felt like thanking God for being alive. I nodded to the North Star, went inside, and poured all the alcohol in the house down the drain. I did not know why, but I knew that gulp of tequila in the truck was my last drink. I gathered the laundry. In a couple of hours, I would call a mover to haul my trailer out of the canyon. I imagined the bright sting of betrayal Ruth and Billy would feel, and how they would turn to each other and see themselves as one wounded soul, a soul strong enough to bend lives that passed on by.