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When I saw them, I rode into the fence and fell off my bike. They took my breath away. Two horses galloped in the pasture, one a coppery red like the setting sun, the other dark as molasses. The firey one nickered and came toward me. My face grew hot. My fingers tingled. I flew onto his back and floated away from school and away from our silent apartment. I could feel his muscles ripple as he danced in the bright light.
A shadow caught my eye. My shadow. It spread out onto the field. I had leaned on that fence for an hour, maybe two. Car lights flashed on Collins Road. I peddled like fury to beat Mom and Dad to the fortress, my name for our clunky old apartment building. I didn't see the bumps in the road or hear horns honking. My bike had become a stallion. If cars and trucks would not stop for us, we would leap them in helium bounds.
I saluted the dark windows that looked out from Two West, our flat. Pure lighter-than-air joy turned the outlines of our fort into a friendly compound. I had my own key. A latch-key child, Miss Jessle, my teacher accused the parents at our last teacher conference. Mom and Dad had explained they didn't worry. Our building had forty tenants and a janitor, plenty of care takers for a sixth grade child.
They didn't get it. Miss Jessle was right. I went home every day to stuff my mouth with whatever I could find and mope around the apartment. Mom didn't allow me to visit any of my classmates after school. "You never know about other people's families. They may not hold to our standards."
Every day all that week, I biked out to Collins Road and hung on the white fence, soaking up the heavy horse hoofbeat, pa-dum, pa-dum, pa-dum, and the tangy smell of fresh manure. At night, I dreamed of my body rocking in rhythm, pa-dum, pa-dum, one form, horse and rider together.
But on Friday night, Mom beat me home. She hardly opened her mouth as she spoke. Her voice squeezed out, low and slow.
"Where have you been, Isabella?" My name shot out of her mouth like a rocket launch.
"Mom can I take riding lessons?"
Her voice shrilled at me. "Where do you think I'll get the money for THAT?"
At least my question had made her forget to put me in the stockade for being late. Money. Mom talked all the time about money.
Later, before bed, when Dad came in for story time, I tried again.
"I want to take riding lessons."
Dad scratched his head, curly red, except for the front where there was no hair at all. "Tell me about it, Izzy."
So, I told him about riding my bike past the barnyard on Collins Road.
"And what, young lady," Dad turned on his stern voice, "were you doing on Collins Road?"
"I rode out to see the horses."
"Now let me put this all together. You saw the horses and fell in love, but you had already fallen in love because you rode out there to see the horses. Is that right?"
"Yes, Dad. That's right. I first saw them out the school bus window returning from a class outing."
Dad said nothing. The clock ticked. Would he put me on house arrest?
"Well, it looks as if you have the family disease. I had hoped it might skip a few more generations, but you seem to have got it and got it bad."
"Yup. Haven't I told you about your second cousin once removed, old Charlie?"
Dad had entered his yarning mode for sure. I nestled down into my covers. No stockade tonight.
"Cousin Charlie lived in the heart of New York City before the car had been invented. Milk, vegetables, ice, coal, all the necessities were delivered by horse cart. You look at the photographs. Most every one will show some old plow horse pulling a wagon.
"Cousin Charlie loved those old nags. He'd stand and talk to them all day long, tickle their ears, and rub their droopy under lips when they nuzzled for food. The more broken down the horse, the better he liked him. His favorite, Napoleon, pulled the garbage scow for Stay Clean with Bean."
"Dad, a scow's a boat."
"Well, right, but I meant to convey something big and heavy. Call it a dray. Where was I? Oh, yes. Cousin Charlie had one talent. He spent money so fast it would have made your eyeballs spin to watch it go.
"One day, Cousin Charlie stopped for a little chat with Napoleon. He turned his pockets inside out searching for something to feed the sorry old beast and found only a tattered one dollar bill.
"He waited for Bean, Napoleon's owner, and offered him that dollar in exchange for the horse. A dollar equaled a fair hunk of change back then. Bean looked at the old cob with his droopy head and knobbly knees. Without saying a word, he unhitched the animal, rolled the reins around the breast yoke and put them in the cart. Then he stepped between the wagon stays, tipped his hat to Cousin Charlie and hauled himself and his wagon down the street.
"Cousin Charlie stood on the curb with the naked horse. He had no halter, no rope, not even a string. He put his hands in his pockets, whistled to the old nag and walked off. Napoleon followed right behind. They clip-clopped through Hoboken on into Hackensack and on and on. Last the family heard they were grazing on a horse ranch somewhere in Idaho. Yes, indeed, Cousin Charlie had the family disease real bad."
Dad had yarned up one of his specials to take my mind off my problems. I was too sleepy to protest, but he wasn't going to tease me out of my horse dreams.
The next night, Dad started to spin another one.
"Your Great, Great Grandparents named their first daughter Charity. She caught the family disease and changed her name to Hortensia and—"
"Dad, you are horsing around with these stories. I'm serious. I want to ride."
His mouth drooped. He rubbed his bald spot, as if he wanted to erase the tall tale brewing there.
After a long silence he said, "It'll take in-gen-ui-ty. You know, smarts. You need a job. You raise the money, and you can spend it on riding lessons to your heart's content."
The next morning, Mom took exception to that. "Whatever she earns, she should share. But a job is all poppycock anyway.
She's eleven. What can she do?"
She, she, she. You'd think I had left the room.
"In my books, kids deliver newspapers, " I said.
"Not today. Men in cars do that now."
"Well, I could help Joe haul out the trash every day."
"Humph, you don't even clean your own room." Mom stalked off.
I put the question to Joe the next day.
"Mighty kind of you to offer to help old Joe," he said, "but the boss don't pay me much to clean this rattletrap building. I can't peel off nothing for your work but my thanks."
He looked at me so kindly that I hauled junk for him anyway.
And that's how I found my in-gen-ui-ty.
Working with Joe created a lot of opportunities.
Miss Sweets, who used to be a teacher at High City Elementary, stopped me in the hall.
"Would you be a dear and return my books to the library?"
I could feel my ingenuity knocking. "Yes, Miss Sweets but-." My jaw snapped shut. I didn't know how to ask for pay.
Miss Sweets frowned. "I shouldn't have asked. It's too hard for a little girl like you."
"No, Ma'am. I'm eleven years old." Really, how insulting. "I was just wondering. Can I pick up some new ones for you as well?"
"May I, dear, not can."
Miss Sweets replaced her frown with a smile. "That would be lovely, and you know what I'll do? I'll give you a cookie on your return."
My jaw flapped. Last week I would have been happy with a cookie or two. Times had changed. A cookie did nothing for my ingenuity.
"And fifteen cents for your effort."
Now that was more to the point.
Mr. Harrison on Three East had a bad leg. He hated going up and down stairs. He promised me a dime to bring him the High City Journal every day.
Fifteen cents plus a few dimes. My riding lessons flickered in a dim distance.
Emptying the trash can on Two East, Joe told me about old Mrs. McPherson. "You watch out. She don't like noise."
And I did. I put mental blinkers on Second Floor, East Wing. I looked both ways when I entered her section of the hall. Most times, I made certain to tiptoe past her door. But one day, almost past Room 201E, the lion's den, the door banged open.
A wrinkled lady in a rose-pink housecoat ambushed me.
"What's your name, noise maker?"
I swallowed twice. "Izzy Carlucci."
"I'll tell you right now that if I don't have quiet, I'll call the police."
"Yes, ma'am," I croaked, "I can be real quiet."
And I was. For days. Maybe even weeks. But then, I forgot.
Always thinking about horses, I galloped up the stairs, through the fire door and right down the hall past Mrs. McPherson's room. My hair streamed behind me to match the tail of my palomino pony. The Indians stormed up the canyon straight for me.
Mrs. McPherson's door sprang open.
"What's all this noise? Galloping horses, I suppose."
"And just why are you galloping in MY hallway?"
She looked at me so fiercely I couldn't help but tell her my truth. "Well, Ma'am, the Indians are charging down the canyon, and I want ..."
"You better hide right behind this boulder." Mrs. McPherson stepped out into the hall and pointed to the open door jutting into the hallway.
Old Joe's warning flew through my head, but what could I do. Mrs. McPherson grabbed my wrist and held on tight. This withered old rose looked frail, but her grip had lassoed me. I took a deep breath and counted to ten.
"Thank you Ma'am, but I have to help Joe. He has Arthuritis."
"I know all about his arthritis and my own. Tell me about your horse."
My heart thumped pah pah-dum, pah pah-dum. I wanted to break into a smooth gallop straight out of that place, but she had hobbled me good.
So, I told it to her straight. "I have the family horse disease. It's incurable."
She closed her eyes and rocked back and forth. Her grip on my arm slackened. I beat a retreat right then and vowed never to be trapped in her canyon again.
Spring vacation came. I had more time to help Joe. I had continued to fetch and carry for Mr. Harrison and Miss Sweets and the word had spread. One West wanted me to dust his bookshelf for fifty cents. Mrs. Morris in Four East had a second baby.
"Naturally, I wouldn't ask you to take Bensy-boo outside. Just play in the living room while I take a little nap."
At two and a half, Bensy-boo could be easily entertained for about fifteen minutes. He liked it when I took him my playing cards. He laughed and threw them over the sofa one by one. He roared like a lion when we played hide and seek on our hands and knees. Babies are hard work, but Bensy-boo fattened my ingenuity by fifty cents every afternoon. Soon I was so busy I didn't have time to mope around or eat cookies coated with peanut butter.
Mom cross examined me at night when she came home from work.
"What makes you think you can take care of a baby?"
"Mom, Mrs. Morris never leaves the apartment, and it's little Ben I watch, not the baby."
Or "Why are you helping Joe clean hallways when you won't touch a mop at home?" "When will you do your homework or practice your violin?" Things like that. Sometimes there were no questions. "If you think I'm going to let you spend your money on horse foolishness, you've got another think coming."
The real kicker came after dinner one night when we were doing dishes together. "You know, don't you, that you're embarrassing me. I have enough problems as it is without this." "Mom, what am I doing wrong?"
"Working menial jobs, hauling trash with that black man. You shame our good family name. You shame me."
I should have learned to keep my mouth shut. Mom had been having outbursts like that ever since she started her new job.
By the end of that week, I had six dollars and seventy five cents. When I told Dad, he said my in-gen-ui-ty had done so well, he'd take me out to Collins Road and see about a lesson. "But don't make a big thing of it to your mom. We'll just do errands and go to Collins Road on the way home. We're not fibbing, you understand. We'll tell no lies. We're just trying to ease your mom into a new situation."
The car's sort of a good place to talk things out. Dad's looking at the road, not straight into my face. Talk seems easier somehow. "Dad, Mom says she ashamed of me for doing little jobs. I don't get it."
"I'm trying to puzzle that out myself. Maybe it's her boss at work. Best I understand, he talks down to her all the time. She doesn't feel she can quit because, well, because ...." He spoke so quietly that I had to lean toward him to hear. "Because she'd like to live someplace nicer, and do nice things and send you to a better school."
The car pulled into the stable drive. A man greeted us at the barn door. He had high shiny black boots with skinny little legs that belled out into round puffs above the knee.
"Jodhpurs," Dad whispered. I'd read about them, but never seen a picture.
The slicked down man spoke. "How d'ya do. I'm Atwood of Atwood Stables. What may I do for you?"
Dad looked at me and waited.
I pulled my bag of coins out of my pocket and held it out to Mr. Atwood. "I want a riding lesson."
He started to laugh, but he may have changed his mind, because he slapped his silly pants.
"What do you know about horses?"
"I've read Black Beauty and Smoky and-"
"Ever been nose to nose with one?"
He walked down a row of stalls and stopped in front of a copper head leaning over a half door.
"Put your hand out. Stretch your fingers back so he doesn't nip you by mistake. Hold real still and let the horse come to you."
My hand tickled as the horse nosed my fingers. My knees quivered while his big nostrils blew warm air along my thumb and up to my wrist.
"My horses are temperamental thoroughbreds, all of them but this one. His name is Flashing Light. We just call him Flash. Has Irish Draught blood. That makes him real reliable. We don't give riding lessons, but I could let you muck out Flash's stall, clean saddles, stuff you have to know to be around horses."
My in-gen-ui-ty had taken me to horse heaven.
Mucking stalls is hard work. All the clumps of manure and wet straw get tossed into a cart and dumped in a big pile back of the barn. At first, the straw wouldn't stick in my fork. I had to help lift the filled tines with my left hand.
Mr. Atwood taught me to spread the fresh straw just so. "You're making a bed for the horse. Be sure you build the sides next to the wall a bit higher than the center. A horse could lie down in a crevice next to a wall and get stuck." I was learning the art of mucking.
Dad started dropping me off before errands and picking me up after, a full morning of bending and lugging. By the third Saturday, I had cleaned Flash's stall in less than an hour and I didn't spill the water bucket when I hung it back on the hook.
When it came time for Flash to come back to his stall, Mr. Atwood caught him in the paddock and gave me the lead rope.
I didn't need the lead. I could feel the connection. Clop, clop. Flash followed me just the way Napoleon had followed Cousin Charlie.
Nothing sounds and smells like a horse barn. Snorts and neighs float from stall to stall; the ground vibrates from hoofbeats; and acid whiffs of horse pee mix with the sweet sugar of green alfalfa. I kept my resolve to earn riding lessons while feeding my family fever at Atwood Stables.
Plenty busy with fetching for Miss Sweets and crawling around on my hands and knees with Bensy, I forgot all about creeping past Mrs. McPherson's corral.
One hot afternoon in May, her door stood open.
"That you, Izzy?" She sat in her rose-pink bathrobe in her stuffed brown chair with a thin blue blanket over her knees.
"You help Joe with the garbage?"
"Do you have time to help me with mine?"
"I'm blind as a bat. Silly expression. Bats have a way of seeing better than most people. I see some, just not so well as I'd like to. I call the store. I order food. I need someone to take away the trash inside my apartment."
The first week was the hardest. I must have carted away four or five green garbage bag loads of empty cartons. Sometimes the stuff oozed a little, enough to make me gag. After one of my trips down to the dumpster in the back alley, Mrs. McPherson called me to her chair.
"How are you managing, Izzy?"
"Just fine, Ma'am, I pretend I'm cleaning stalls at a race track."
She stretched her mouth across her face in what I hoped was a grin not a grimace.
At the end of each session, she would hold up her hand and beckon me to her chair. "I'm holding your reins, young filly. Come sit by me and tell me a family story."
I ran through Cousin Charlie, and Great Grandmother Hortensia pretty fast. I had to ride out on my own after that, bareback too, without a halter or a bridle to lead the way. But no matter where I hitched my horse at the end of the story, Mrs. McPherson would stretch her mouth across her face and hand me a quarter.
Visiting with Mrs. McPherson became easier. I didn't have to gag anymore and she didn't grab my wrist in that tie-down hold.
Excerpted from Horse Dreams by Nancy Stevenson Copyright © 2012 by Nancy Stevenson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 5, 2013