Horse Country

Horse Country

Pic Credits: Jes https://goo.gl/6CZHKo

Debbie Sinclair was born on May 20, 1948, in Fauquier County, VA. It all went downhill from there. She was the youngest of four and the only girl. Tom, Johnny, and Doug were her brothers. All four siblings were born within five years. Irish twins times two, people joked. In 1950s Virginia, no one would have thought to say Irish quadruplets. You’d have gotten your ass kicked for that kind of talk.

One of the first things Debbie understood about her mother Margaret was that Margaret came from money. You could just tell: folks from money were shinier. Margaret was from horse country while everyone else was from Fauquier County. On a map it looked like the same place, but it was worlds apart. “Here’s Queen Margaret,” the men at the counter would mumble as she marched her four kids into the diner. Her hair was gleaming blonde and the skin on her forehead was not leathered like the other moms’. Hers was an accent of no place: clear, crisp water among the guttural, muddy grunting of Fauquier. She never went by Margie or Marge, and she’d correct people, too. “It’s Mar-ga-ret,” she’d say, with that stare that could make a grown man swallow hard. She never did have many friends. “Your momma stand up way too straight, like she think she above us,” one of Debbie’s classmates told her in third grade. True, of course, but Debbie punched him in the nose because she didn’t like it pointed out. She got the switch from Margaret for that. “But I was defending you!” Debbie yelled in between licks. “Doesn’t matter. That’s not how a lady behaves,” Margaret said at the end, out of breath and studying the welts rising on her daughter’s bottom. Well, I ain’t no lady then, Debbie thought.

Despite her moneyed beginnings, Margaret lived alone with the four kids in a two-room house on Route 3. All because of Billy, the hustler: from the heart of Fauquier County, no doubt about that. Nothing horse country about him. Long before Debbie was born, Billy worked as a stable boy on Margaret’s parents’ farm, with his eye on Margaret since he saw her thighs work a glistening roan into submission. There might be somethin’ there, he’d thought as he rested his forearms on his shovel, watching through squinted eyes as her muscles trembled against the horse’s. Margaret’s father would later accuse him of seducing her for the money. But for the first time and never again, money was not on Billy’s mind as he shoveled a pile of shit wilting under the August sun, stealing glances at Margaret. Her eyes were the strangest shade, almost gold. Billy looked at those honeyed eyes and thought: that’s the life I want.

When Margaret’s daddy threw her out five months pregnant, Billy married her in a quick courthouse ceremony, right before he left for France with the Army. Europe taught him fear. One afternoon the Luftwaffe scattered his platoon like panicked American roaches on the white French sand. Billy crouched alone between two dunes, out of ammo and not sure where to go next, bullets whizzing by as the Hun advanced. A German stumbled on Billy in his sandy ditch and aimed his gun. They stared at one another for a beat. Billy closed his eyes, thought of the golden eyes back home, and wet his pants. The Nazi dropped his gun a couple of inches and shot him in the leg. Why he allowed Billy to live, Billy didn’t know. The sand soaked up his blood like it was nothing but water. When he looked back up, the German was gone. Billy ripped a piece off his remaining pant leg to tie around the wound and suddenly needed a smoke more than anything he’d ever needed in twenty years of life. Like any self-respecting Virginian, he had some tucked behind his vest but his hands shook so hard that he couldn’t get the damn thing in his mouth. It took him centuries to light the first one, soggy with his sweat. Then Billy laid back, closed his eyes, and waited for someone to come on by and either finish the job or save his life. He’d burned through his whole pack by the time two fresh-faced Americans came upon him. Billy was to live.

Coming back was tough, his aching thankfulness for life soon snuffed out. His leg dragged a bit, he heard some noises no one else did, and he had some nightmares, but that wasn’t the problem. A man bucked up to those things. The real problem was: no money. There was a whiny toddler between him and the golden eyes and soon, a second screaming baby boy. Margaret had little tenderness for him or the babies. He often caught her looking at their children like she was wondering whose they were. A coldness settled on their house like setting cement. Before she married Billy, Margaret had never cooked. She’d never done her own laundry. “We had colored people for that,” she’d say. She never deigned to use any of the other words for colored folks that were so popular in Virginia back then. That talk is for poor white people, she’d say. We are poor and white, Billy would think.

Now Margaret had to do all that work for herself, Billy, and two kids. The golden eyes turned brass. Billy was a workhorse, but he learned fast that workhorses don’t make much money. He still shoveled stables, even now. It was the only job he could find since none of the Fauquier horse farms would give him better work after his seduction of Margaret. He started to escape from home by playing cards at night and on the rare nights he was home, he’d escape even then by plenty of drink. He’d slur, “You regret this. You do. It’s all over you like flies on shit.”

“You’re the expert on that particular substance,” she’d say. Margaret rarely raised her voice to Billy back then. She didn’t need to.

Six months after the second baby came, Billy looked across the breakfast table and announced, “I’m leavin’ for a while.”

She didn’t blink or flinch. Folded her hands in her lap and stared at him, waiting for an explanation. Cold-blooded.

“You woulda been good in Normandy,” Billy observed. The corner of her mouth pulled up into a little smirk. He lived for those. “I’m not leavin’ you for good, in case you worried about that.” She rose to clear the dishes, banging them together louder than strictly necessary. “A guy I met in France, he got some work for me up in Jersey. Workin’ with horses. God knows we need the money and I ain’t makin’ enough down here.”

“I’m not,” she said, facing away from him toward the sink.

“Not what?”

“I’m not making. Am. Not. Making. Not ‘I ain’t makin’.’”

He studied the back of her. Billy’s late father had been a useless drunk prone to dispensing excellent advice. He had told Billy that the secret to a happy marriage is marrying a woman who’s just a little too good for you. Billy’s problem was that he’d married a woman much too good for him and, worse, far above him. And even worse than all that: she knew it.

The next morning, he left for Jersey. He’d been around horses all his life, but the seedy tracks up north were a world away from the rolling green hills of Fauquier. He’d gone up north on a vague description of “managing the business end” of the stables, but the job quickly defined itself. If a horse busted a leg, Dr. Billy was called in. Shooting them between the moist brown eyes broke something in him that even the war hadn’t been able to touch. Son of a bitch, he thought after the first time, puking behind the barn because some brain splattered on his pants. I get to live because I get shot in the leg. Now I shoot dead for broken legs. What fucking luck. Showing mercy is a luxury, he realized. A luxury that could exist on the battlefield but not back home. He became more devoted to his drinking and his cards. There were some racetrack hussies, too. Soon, he didn’t flinch anymore when he pulled the trigger and he could do it steady and neat, without splatters on his pants. The trick was in angling to avoid their eyes – with the gun, of course, but more so with his mind.

Billy was up and down between Jersey and Virginia for years, but down enough to get two more babies off Margaret, the last one finally being a little girl. He started making a little bit of money. The Jersey hustler, people started to call him in Fauquier. Debbie’s first memory of her daddy: him bursting through the door and throwing money on the table. “Feed the fuckers,” he snarled at Margaret. The words were ugly, sharp things, but his voice had an undertone of need. Little as she was then, Debbie understood: the urge to impress Margaret was coiled inside him like a starving gartersnake. But Margaret wouldn’t oblige. Always, the money stayed on the table until Billy left for Jersey again. She’d have the kids starve before letting him see her touch those greasy wads of bills.

Debbie loved her daddy and the boys hated his guts. When Billy was in Jersey, too far to hear, they called him a mean son of a bitch, a coward, a rotten excuse for a daddy, and worse. Debbie would catapult herself through the air, scratching at their eyes. After a while, they said those things just to rile her, one of them holding her back and the other two carrying on. It wasn’t hard to see why the Sinclair boys hated their daddy: when he was home, the belt came out a lot for them, for big offenses, small ones, and no offenses at all. There may have even been a few times, when he was deep in his cups, that Billy put out a cigarette or two on Johnny, who seemed to be his favorite for such pastimes. With Debbie, it was different. Her daddy looked at her a certain way, like he knew all of her but still loved her. “You’s just like me,” he’d say. Her mother would chuckle bitterly whenever she overheard that. When Billy left, Debbie would hang onto his legs, screaming and pleading for him to stay. He never got impatient, always tried to talk her into believing he’d be back. It was Margaret who’d pry her fingers loose and slap her into calming down. Billy never raised his hand to Debbie, but he sure did hightail it out as soon as she was in a puddle on the couch, shocked into silence and holding a hand against her fiery cheek.

When the kids were teenagers, Billy came back from Jersey for good. His face was weathered and he smoked like a fiend, lighting the next cigarette with his current one. He showed Debbie gambler tricks like rolling a coin down your knuckles and catching it again, in an endless loop. She never mastered it. “You got steady hands,” she’d say. He always searched her face hard when she said that, squinting over his dangling cigarette.

The six of them in the Route 3 house lasted for five months. Billy and Margaret never stopped fighting and these days Margaret did raise her voice. Billy got violent and so did she. Once, she set him on fire while he napped on the couch. Cool as a cucumber, she came back to the kitchen table after lighting a cigarette on the same match she set to his shirt, which she’d carefully sprinkled gasoline over as he slept. Panicked by his screams, Debbie and Johnny doused him with an old pot. Tom was out somewhere, but Doug watched the ordeal while chewing his sandwich, his face registering all the emotion of a cow chomping grass. Billy wasn’t even mad. “I told you already, you the only one that make me burn for you,” he laughed once he was put out. Margaret’s mouth twitched into a little smile. The chaos and confusion of it all overwhelmed Debbie even when she hid behind the sofa, covering her ears with the ratty pillows. The week after the burning, Margaret peeked over the back of the couch and found her like that. With a sigh, she mumbled “this is poverty” before she pulled a pillow off Debbie’s ear, tucked it behind her back, and resumed her reading while Billy raged on about something or other. Debbie wanted gone. The Sinclair boys would go out at night, but they never asked her along. Women don’t have the privilege of escape, she learned early on.

After the fourth month of Billy being home, Debbie jumped in the back of Tom’s ancient pickup truck one night. The Sinclair boys stood next to the truck bed, looking at her and one another, quiet as church mice at this unpleasant conundrum in their truck bed.

Tom broke the silent standoff by spitting on the ground. “No fuckin’ way. Get out.”

“Make me!”

Johnny, already drunk: “Aw, what trouble can she get in? She won’t do no harm.”

Doug: “She all yours then. I ain’t spendin’ my night lookin’ after her dumb ass.”

Debbie picked up a sharp rock from the floor of the truck bed and got Doug right above the eyebrow. Stunned, he reached up and came away with a red smear on his fingertips. His eyes crossed as he studied his stained index finger. Johnny doubled over laughing. “Get in, fool,” Tom ordered. It was unclear whether he was talking to Doug or Johnny, but they both obeyed instantly. Even with the three Sinclair boys blending into a blob as they did, there was a hierarchy among them, with Tom firmly at the top. After that night, none of them ever objected to her riding along again. She was no trouble at their parties: just sat by the bonfire quietly swallowing whatever people handed her. By the sixties, there was a lot to swallow, even in rural Virginia.

Five months in: off Billy went again, but this time he stayed in Fauquier. By that time, Debbie and the Sinclair boys knew what they liked and they could make their own decisions, albeit usually bad ones. They liked to drink. They liked to do drugs. Where Billy gave his only girl a lot of rein, Margaret was of the mind that boys should run free but girls should stay close: a parenting strategy that she wished her own folks had lived by. When Margaret forbade the Sinclair boys from taking Debbie along to parties anymore, they listened, instantly and unquestioningly. Debbie never forgave them for that but it was useless fighting them. She knew the real villain. She began to clash with her momma: drawn-out screaming matches with flying dishes that had the boys ducking for cover behind the sofa in Debbie’s usual hiding spot. Mother and daughter lasted until there were only three plates left. Debbie moved in with her dad. The Sinclair boys stayed with their mother. A line had been drawn. Debbie was fifteen then: tall and slender, with copper hair and light brown eyes. Ripe for the pickin’, the men in the church parking lot whispered on Sundays. They didn’t know she’d already been picked.

You see, when Debbie was twelve, she’d gone to a birthday party for Ruby White. Mr. White asked Debbie if her daddy was still in Jersey so much. She confirmed that he was. Mr. White invited Debbie to come look at some puppies behind the house. Turned out, he had made a mistake and there were no puppies, but he said maybe he could show her some daddy things since her own was gone so much. She didn’t like all the things he showed her, but his arms warmed her. He smelled like a dad should: tobacco and leather and kindness. “Let’s visit like this sometimes, but you can’t tell no one because Ruby might get jealous,” he said gently.

She saw him once a week behind the house for six months until one day the Sinclair boys, seething and red-faced, were standing over a bleeding Mr. White with a piece of plywood. “You touch my little sister again, you sick son of a bitch,” Johnny hissed. His voice shook and he spit on the pathetic figure on the ground. “See what happens, nasty motherfucker,” Tom added, throwing the plywood to the side. Doug stomped Mr. White on the nose for good measure. Debbie screamed at the crunch. “Get dressed,” Tom ordered. She scrambled, burning under Johnny’s tearful eyes. It wasn’t cold, but he covered her with his jacket even after she was dressed. She saw the wetness on the rough sleeve where he had wiped his eyes. That was the only day one of the Sinclair boys wept a little without earning himself an instant ass-kicking from the other two. “Alright now, get yourself together,” Tom said. She didn’t know if he was talking to her or Johnny.

Bouncing in the back of the boys’ rusty pickup truck on the way home, Debbie felt sad. She showed up behind the house for the next couple of weeks at the usual time, but she never saw Mr. White alone after that day. Her brothers never spoke of it again. That’s how justice was meted out in Fauquier County: quiet and quick.

After the big split, Billy and Debbie moved into a boarding room and became thick as thieves. Father and daughter were inseparable except Sunday afternoons, when Billy would disappear for a few hours to come back glowing. “Where do you go?” Debbie asked. “Don’t ask me that again,” he’d grumble. She burned to know, but cooled herself. We’re together all the time, she thought. We never spend a night away from each other. That oughta be enough.

Matter of fact, they were together so much that people started to talk. “Ain’t right for a daddy and his grown girl to live alone like that,” Mrs. Rabak would mumble when she saw them picking up their mail from the post office. “No mam,” Mr. Rabak said from behind his paper. “But she’s a fast one, might be good for her daddy to keep her close.”

“Except this daddy’s even faster,” Mrs. Rabak snapped as she yanked the curtain closed.

Debbie had long since dropped out of school, that being unnecessary for Fauquier County girls, especially pretty ones. She helped Billy run his new taxi business, which consisted of one car and two illegal card games in a one-room shack behind the church. Her job came to her naturally: she took coats, brought drinks, and flirted a bit. The men loved her but the fact that she was Billy’s girl kept them in line.

Debbie never did know what she was about. Her daddy swore he could tell who she’d be that day by the way she put on her makeup in the morning. She loved living fast, drinking a lot, hanging with the gamblers, hemline always high north of Fauquier County norm. She loved all that, for a long while. Until she didn’t. One day, she met a boy. Michael Fletcher was from The Plains, right on the county line: a farm boy who worked the rocky fields up on Bull Run Mountain. He saw her fork over thirty cents for a coke and burger at the diner counter and stood awestruck. Debbie thought she might be able to become the girl he saw. They went ahead and married the following week at the justice of the peace. Quiet and quick.

Billy wasn’t at the wedding because he didn’t know and he didn’t take that kindly, despite the fact that he had married Margaret in exactly the same way all those years ago. When she brought Michael around, Billy looked him up and down, lower lip bulging with a wad of tobacco. Neither man spoke. “Michael works up on the Addison farm,” Debbie started.

Billy spit brown juice on the ground. “Stables?”

“Fields, sir.”

“You gonna keep my girl happy, Mike?”

“Michael.”

Billy snorted, turning to Debbie. “Come on now. You ain’t the full name type.”

Debbie and her new husband didn’t see a lot of Billy after that.

Michael didn’t want his wife working, especially not at a card game, so she became a housewife. They didn’t have much but, to Debbie, their one-room log cabin on Bull Run Mountain Road was a paradise in its calmness. There was no hiding behind the sofa because there was no chaos. Also, there was no sofa, but even their sparse furnishings symbolized for her a liberation from the overcrowded, tumultuous life she’d always known. She threw herself into her role: perfected her pound cake, dusted every crack and corner, rubbed his shoulders when he came home. Even dressed like a housewife would. Every night, they rolled around in their bed made for one person and became one person. He thought he was her first and she liked to think it too. There had been a couple of boys since Mr. White, but that was a different Debbie.

From her cocoon with Michael, she watched from a safe distance as her brothers began to bungle their lives far beyond the boys-will-be-boys mischief that Fauquier County tolerated and expected. There were pregnant girls left unacknowledged (Tom), arrests for cocaine dealing (Johnny), bar brawls turned into stabbings (Doug), and lots and lots of drugs and drink (all). She took Michael’s name, hopeful this might break the Sinclair curse of inability for calm and quiet, of that magnetic pull onto a collision course with chaos. Oh yes, she tried hard to be good. But being so steadily beloved did get a little boring. The love in Michael’s eyes began to hang over her like a reproach. Old Billy was in her head. She saw him around town. He’d wave, cordial enough. “You sick of full-name-Michael yet?” he’d yell across the street.

Just like that, one night, she found herself back at the card game. “We was expectin’ you,” said Billy. One of his front teeth had gone missing. “That’ll happen when you ain’t here to keep me in line,” he grinned when he caught her staring at the black gap. “Where you been?” the men yelled, cheering her, toasting her. She’d missed that. Michael in his cabin on the dirt road seemed far away. She started staying with Billy again.

Michael showed up at the game the following week. He pulled her outside, with all the men hooting and hollering. “You makin’ this into a joke,” he hissed. Debbie leaned against the shack and looked at a deserted shoe in the gutter. The laces were gone, the leather waterlogged. The only thing sadder she could think of was Michael. “You comin’ home,” he declared. He looked left, right, rubbed his face hard. “Tonight!” He damn near stomped on the ground. Debbie saw the shift in how he looked at her. She couldn’t bear it. Just three months since the diner.

“Well? You gonna say somethin’?”

The door swung open. Billy strolled out to join them. She still hadn’t said a thing because she was thinking. Could she go back? Could she become that girl Michael saw in the diner again, now that she hadn’t been? Can backwards ever be a good direction?

Billy lit a cigarette and leaned against the shack. “Why don’t you get on outta here,” he said softly. Michael stood no chance. Deflated, he turned on his heels and left without his wife.

When father and daughter were alone, emboldened by the stinging rush of having lost her husband, she again asked Billy what she’d wondered since they began living together in the boarding house all that time ago: “What’s on Sunday afternoons?”

Billy blew out two long streams of smoke through his nose.

“Where do you go?” she pushed.

He crushed out his cigarette on the wall, for once not lighting a new one. “Made someone a promise a long time ago. Only thing I ever did right.”

She started but his eyes told her: no more.

Even though she began to live apart from Michael, she only divorced him after she met Caleb the next year. Caleb liked to drink and did some drugs. Partied with her brother Johnny some and didn’t mind her working the card game at all. “Goddamned long-haired hippie,” Billy said. “He’ll never work a day in his life for you.” She could be herself with Caleb, she told her daddy. “What’s yourself?” Billy asked. She didn’t have an answer for that.

Another six months later, when Caleb began to look at her different too, she decided she might need a woman’s view. For the first time in two years and on a whim, she skipped Sunday church and walked down Route 3 instead. Margaret opened the door and offered her coffee like she’d just been there the week before. The boys were all gone by now: Tom a heavy-drinking army man, Doug a heavy-drinking car salesman, and Johnny a heavy-drinking drug addict. Debbie thought her momma must be lonely.

She explained it all to Margaret.

“You’re not comfortable being all of the different women inside of you,” Margaret said in her polished purr. “You’ve got to get there. You’re not a housewife or a hussy or a drinker. You’re all of that, a little bit. Don’t try to be any one of them too much at a time for a man. That’ll wear you out.”

Debbie pushed her hair off her forehead and tried to make sense of it all.

“Don’t make it from scratch,” Margaret explained. “Buy the cake mix. Don’t drink the whole bottle. Have a glass. Now go back to your husband.”

Debbie wasn’t good at being a whole woman made of different pieces. She could do one piece at a time, all the time, all the way, until she moved to the next piece. And she didn’t like living apart from Billy. “I don’t want to go back to Caleb,” she mumbled. “He got tired of me too. Same as Michael. Maybe I’m not the keepin’ type. After a bit, they don’t look at me like in the beginning.”

Margaret sighed. “None of them do. You won’t look at him the same either. It’s being together all the time. Togetherness kills love.”

“Not with daddy.”

Margaret snorted. “Are you talking about you or me?”

Debbie felt her cheeks light up.

“Your daddy and I weren’t together all the time,” Margaret said after a while. “He only came home from Jersey when he could look at me the same again.”

The Route 3 house was perfectly still except for a clock ticking in the background. It was the sound of lonely. Suddenly, Debbie wondered. “You ever find anyone new after daddy?”

Margaret looked at the clock, shifting her weight. “No. I’m still a married woman.”

Billy didn’t have those hang-ups. Just last month at the card game, there’d been a colored girl at the door claiming he was her daddy too. Billy gave the girl a paper bag full of money and walked her out. That was the last they’d seen of her.

That might not be a good story to tell Margaret.

“Why’d you never get a divorce?”

Margaret looked at the clock again and

took the cups to the sink. “It’s complicated.”

Having already been through one divorce at the age of eighteen, Debbie felt qualified on the matter. “Nothin’ complicated about it. Man desert you, you can divorce him.” Debbie felt a little pang of guilt, talking about her daddy like that. She heard a car pull up outside. Margaret’s eyes flicked from Debbie to the door, and back again.

When the front door swung open, she already knew who it was before she turned around. Sunday afternoons. All those years. Margaret stared at her. There was regret in the golden eyes.

Judith is originally from Belgium, but moved to the U.S. when she was fifteen. She currently resides in Richmond, VA, where she is an attorney by day and a writer by night. Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals (most recently the Evening Street Review) and she has lined several drawers with novel drafts that she never considers finished enough to show to anyone.

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