Authors: Diana Estill
Tags: #driving, #strong women, #divorce, #seventies, #abuse, #poverty, #custody, #inspirational, #family drama, #adversity
When Horses Had Wings
By Diana Estill
When Horses Had Wings
Copyright 2011 – Diana Estill
All Rights Reserved
Smashwords Edition, License Notes
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This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Table of Contents
’d like to offer some kind of deliberate purpose for this ruinous decision, the one that cheated me of childhood and stripped away the last of my self-confidence. But if there was one, I’ve yet to identify it. Whether by design or choice, my memory isn’t what it used to be. Some things are better forgotten anyhow.
You might think I’d have relished the details of that fateful day well enough to recall them forever. To be honest, my initial offense has, over time, become far less memorable than its penalty.
All I can tell you is that it happened in a stand of live oaks, somewhere off of a deserted county road in North Texas, one sweltering afternoon in August of 1971. There, in the blistering backseat of a Plymouth Fury, I succumbed to a young boy’s attempt to set my body and both our futures ablaze. Like a prairie grassfire, my reasoning followed no particular path. I simply yielded to his pent-up needs and our secluded setting—took advantage of a rural opportunity, if you will. This single stroke of bad luck, or poor judgment, depending on how you choose to look at it, led Kenny Ray Murphy and me straight to the front door of the Second Baptist Church in White Rock, where Daddy was a deacon.
We didn’t exactly live in White Rock proper, the largest town in Limestone County, population 5,090. But how else can I describe that physical location, a flat, treeless twenty acres simply called “unincorporated land?” The parcel that Momma and Daddy owned looked like a child-sized sliver cut from a whole buttermilk pie. For the most part, our neighbors, the Caldwells, with their five-hundred-acre spread, owned the rest of that pastry. Every summer when whirlwinds transformed honey-colored strands into millions of miniature pompoms, the Caldwells graciously, and no doubt jokingly, baled Daddy’s six acres of oats.
Anyone who saw our barbed-wire-enclosed, three-acre black-eyed pea patch would have known that Daddy was only a weekend farmer, not a serious sodbuster; heck, he didn’t even own a horse, much less a tractor. So he improvised by using me and my younger brother Ricky as livestock. It looked something like this: Imagine a horse-drawn plow, the kind used before the Industrial Age, and then substitute two kids where you’d expect to find a work beast. We walked abreast, pushing against a leather strap that crossed our ribs, pulling a giant spade behind us, and praying that nobody we knew or might ever see again would recognize us. Daddy proclaimed the contraption ingenious. We called it humiliating.
The harness was nothing more than a series of interconnected men’s belts. This makeshift device didn’t hurt my midriff half as much as it distorted my thinking. Often when hitched to that plow, to distract myself from the drudgery, I pretended to be a unicorn. I’d envision soaring off to a place where there were no crop dusters swooping low over human life forms, threatening immediate asphyxiation and the deformation of future progeny. Several times a year, we heard the ominous plane engine sounds and rushed to close the house windows. The few times we didn’t move fast enough left the family gasping from pesticide sprays that seeped through the window screens and invaded our lungs. The noxious mist stole our breaths, interrupting normal respiration and thoughts of anything beyond survival for several minutes.
I’ll be the first to admit that Daddy wasn’t fully dedicated to agriculture, but he appeared resolute about his religion and doing what was right—which was why he took Ricky and me out of the big city schools and moved us to a place so remote that even Marijuana couldn’t find us.
Or so he thought.
At least twice, sometimes three times, a week, Daddy drove the eight miles to White Rock so we could witness Brother Sontag’s preaching. However, I seldom listened to the minister because he was always shouting about planning to meet Jesus when I was more interested in learning how to approach boys that I could see and touch.
But on the day Brother Sontag asked, “Do you, Renee Anne Goodchild, take this man, Kenneth Raymond Murphy, to be your lawfully wedded husband?” the reverend had my strict attention. For about a millisecond, I thought I might actually have had a choice, but then I remembered my daddy was standing there with us.
At that instant, I must have been contemplating the outcome of my next response, because I recall holding my breath so tightly and my chest so high that you’d have thought someone had just yelled “AT-TE-EN-TION!” By the time I finally said, “I do,” it came out sounding more like a sigh of exhaustion than an oath of commitment. But I was simply relieved to have said it without splitting a seam.
Momma had made my gown, which was no secret to all ten of my guests, from a Simplicity pattern that she remembered I’d liked. She’d run out of white thread near the end, so she’d made do with beige on one sleeve. She said no one would notice, or recall that she’d used the same pattern to sew my band recital dress the previous year. The fact that Momma was even less of a seamstress than she was a cook never seemed to stop her from trying at either. On her second attempt to master a basic shift, albeit satin, her sewing skills hadn’t improved much, unless you consider the facing, which she’d taken care to tack. This time.
Though I’m sure that dress fit me poorly, other than my memory, there’s no proof of it today. Our wedding photos, shot on Grandma’s Polaroid, failed to develop, so I can truthfully say that our ceremony didn’t contain any Kodak moments. Grandma said the film might have been underexposed—unlike me. I was three months pregnant.
It wasn’t the best of times for a marriage. I’m sure Momma and Daddy would have done more for us, given us some money or something, if Daddy hadn’t lost his job five months earlier during the 1971 recession. Daddy had worked in electronics for the better part of his life, but new technology, something he called “solid state,” had suddenly surpassed his understanding. Kind of like his daughter.
Daddy was the type of guy my schoolmates would have called a “nerd,” a man who read
, listened to Hank Snow records, and voted for Nixon—both times. His hairline, which receded all the way back to his crown, and his oval face made his nearly square black-framed glasses an ill-suited choice, sort of like the navy socks he sported with his royal-blue suede athletic shoes. He was the type who could tell you how your radio operated and yet remain dumbfounded when it played the lyrics to
Light My Fire
. So it came as no surprise that Daddy didn’t wonder how Kenny and I were going to make it after we married.
“Me’un your momma seen plenty o’ lean times,” he said. “You’ll be okay, long as you cling to the Lord.” His own momma had conceived him during the Great Depression, so Daddy might have thought I was merely carrying on a family tradition.
He didn’t know that by the time I’d turned seventeen, I’d already been accepted into the PWT club. At least, that was what I heard others whisper when I cashed in the cola bottles Kenny had found at his job to buy groceries.
“Poor white trash,” women whispered when I passed.
“Look at her belly.”
“Already hatching out another one! You know, that’s how they do.”
“Ignorant little Jezebel.”
They could stare and think whatever they wanted. I didn’t care because I was planning to eat a sumptuous steak, possibly my first taste of meat in a week. Mmm. I imagined the smell of pork fat simmering in red-eye gravy. Yesiree, I could cook those thick pork slices, ones better grocers wouldn’t carry, until they resembled the finest beef cutlets Bonanza Steakhouse ever served. My garage-sale skillet could scald as well as any. I’d dust those strips with flour, salt, and pepper, and then I’d brown the heavily marbled meat in bacon grease that I kept stored in an old mayonnaise jar. We never threw away anything that could be reused.
I reckon bacon grease was about the only thing we had that was plentiful, unless you count the stray dogs sniffing out back for scraps. Pork, our primary source of protein, was cheap, cheaper than cold cuts or yellow-fatted chickens. So every morning, about five-thirty, I’d fry up six pieces of slab bacon, the leanest I could find, for Kenny’s lunch. Two bacon and mayonnaise sandwiches, one to eat, one to exchange with his fellow sanitation workers.
Kenny always said, “You can’t believe what some of them boys’ll trade for a damn B-minus-LT.” That was what he called our version of the traditional sandwich because ours never included any produce. Too expensive. However, lettuce or not, Kenny knew he’d stand a better chance of having some variety in his meals if he could trade up. “Ain’t exactly their favorite,” he’d say of his fellow crewmen, “but a bacon sandwich’s about as close as I intend to get to pigs’ feet.” Sometimes he’d brag that he’d made off with a family-size bag of potato chips or a thermos mug full of hamburger stew, foods he’d have been hard-pressed to find at home.
I couldn’t imagine how Kenny could feel like eating
, sitting near one of those garbage trucks with trash heaped on their beds and moving parts compressing decayed animal carcasses and unnaturally colored foods, yellow lettuce and blue-green bread, unidentified dark liquids dripping from all sides, flies circling. There could have been a hacked-up human in there somewhere, and I bet no one would have noticed.
The stench from those two-ton rigs leapt onto Kenny’s sludge-colored uniform and followed him all the way home. I could smell him even before he sauntered past the front door, a pungent aroma of rotting fruit mixed with methane gas.
“Where’s dinner?” he’d ask right off.
Cupping one hand over my nose and mouth, stifling a dry heave, I would set a couple of mismatched Melmac plates on top of our gray Formica dining table, the one Kenny had brought home from work one day. He found all sorts of worthwhile items on bulk-trash days. If Kenny had a specialty, this was it: claiming what others didn’t want and putting it to good use.
The whole while I set out macaroni and cheese or beans and cornbread, our standard fare, my stomach groaned with confusion. Many times, I didn’t know which I wanted more—to eat or puke.
On better days, Kenny would wash his hands before he sat in one of the two metal folding chairs we used for dining. I’d fill a plastic tumbler with Lipton Tea, his favorite liquid refreshment other than beer, and set it next to the TV schedule he insisted remain on the table at all times. I’d moved it once, and he’d hollered, “Leave it be. How you ‘spect me to plan my evening?”
My nights didn’t require much preparation. Given the options—cleaning house or watching cop shows—the choice was easy. I’d pretend I was Kenny’s personal servant, which didn’t take much imagination, and gather uniforms he’d shed throughout the house: pants that could practically stand alone and shirts that reeked of rancid waste. I was spared the challenge of washing them because once a week Kenny lugged his work clothes to the City where they were laundered, starched, folded, and returned looking like they’d arrived brand new from some big-name department store.
For the most part, I performed my domestic chores responsibly, including washing Kenny’s hair in our kitchen’s old farm sink whenever he insisted. That wasn’t an inconvenience, really—more like self-defense. He only asked me to do it about once every other week, and by then I was ready to perform a full baptism if it might improve his appearance or smell. Dutifully, I’d run his bath water in a tub that still had legs and sponge him all over. I guess I thought that proved me a good wife, unlike the ones in those soap operas Momma watched. Those starlets were nothing but a bunch of self-centered, loose-legged, motor-mouths—gals who were pretty to look at, but tragically useless, as far as I was concerned. I’d studied them, wishing to look the way they did in their fancy, store-bought clothes. But I suffered no delusions. Being a small-breasted, blotchy-faced, uneducated girl, I felt sure my only options were to become a decent wife and mother, even if I confused the order. And I feared what might become of me if I succeeded at neither.
I’d quit school in the eleventh grade because the thought of my classmates teasing about my condition was more than I could bear. They’d already humored themselves enough at my expense. Until my neighbor showed me a newspaper article about my high school band, I hadn’t given much thought to becoming a dropout. I couldn’t believe the headlines:
White Rock’s Marching Band to Perform at Mayan Pyramids.
Pyramids! I’d always dreamed of standing on top of one and gazing like some kind of princess warrior into the vast distance. Nevertheless, it looked as though the closest thing to a pyramid I would see was sitting on top of our Admiral TV: a pair of rabbit ears linked by a single strand of aluminum foil. And the only picture coming into clear view was the chance I’d missed.
I remembered David Lassiter, first-chair drummer, and wondered what he might be doing now. Was he somewhere gently holding another girl’s chin the way he used to cup mine whenever I’d look away while he was speaking to me? Would he be heading to college after high school next year? Or would he, like so many others, settle for pumping gas at the local Fina station? Maybe work down at the roof truss plant ten hours a day, the way Kenny had after he failed algebra the second time?
Technically, I’d been David’s girl first, before I became blind to everything but Kenny’s senior high school status. Kenny had practically guaranteed my acceptance with the cheerleader crowd, being two years older and all. And David’s ability to play a perfect
drum solo hadn’t been enough to compensate for his freshman ranking or lack of a driver’s permit. I didn’t want my classmates to question my social maturity since most of the boys were already making fun of me. They’d bark when I passed them in the school hallways. “Arf, arf,” the sports jocks would shout. Benny, one of my school’s star track members, would yell, “Hey! You know you’re a real