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Rosie and the Horses
"Rosie had to get free of that place," Don said. "Had to run. She was always running. She ran from that house. From one foster home to another. All through the state of Wyoming until she got here."
I have spent most of my life on the Great Plains, a region full of stories that rarely filter to the outside world. In one of those towns, at one time, I heard the story of Rosie (not her real name). The story was told to me like this…
Don had been feeding the horses. He was just in from the pasture and he was worn out, leaning back in his recliner. He could have been asleep, but the lamplight caught one eye that watched his wife Lorrie as she talked. She told me that he had been back to the doctor again.
He had lost a few seconds of time a couple weeks earlier. No one could tell him why. One minute, standing at the kitchen island, Don had set down his Dr Pepper on the countertop. Then the next, he had lost all mooring in space, falling into a void that swallowed sense and memory. His hand found the edge of the island, his chest sank forward. He was gone. Just for a matter of seconds. And then, tilting back, he had returned. He had taken to calling it his “episode.”
“Have you asked Rosie yet?” I asked from my perch on the living room couch. There were three ex-wives, but Rosie was the doctor. Sometimes she would spot Don some free medical advice when he couldn’t be bothered to go into the local hospital.
“Oh, you know how it is,” he sighed from under his cap. “She thinks the same thing as these others. Dig around in my heart, check out my brain, whatever.”
Still, the experience must have shaken him. Lorrie had taken him back into the local hospital the day before.
“Goddamn doctors,” he muttered now, pushing a loose strand of silver hair back behind his ear. “You don’t want to let those guys start digging around, you know? It’ll just be one thing after another now.” He sighed and rubbed at his neck. “Ah well,” he said.
It had been about a year since both Don and Lorrie had decided to quit smoking and taken up vaping. He puffed compulsively now at his vape pen, the canister casting a shadow against his gray mustache and up the hollow of his cheek. He blew out the vapor to the wall. “Let’s talk about something else, guys.”
So Lorrie and I talked about the pastor who had abandoned the Christian Church, and the dug up pavement on the lake road. We talked about the Christmas decorations still hanging from the downtown lampposts into February. Outside the house, the day had been cold, clear and gray. Morning had become afternoon with no change in the skies. Lorrie had the television on low volume in the background, and the cat wandered in from the bedroom and jumped up beside me on the couch.
Don had retreated back into silence while Lorrie sat and talked from her recliner, puffing her own vape pen occasionally. She answered my question about the skinny young man who rides his bike up and down Main Street, staring out of dark eyes. “Poor kid,” she said. “I get sick just thinking about what his childhood was like. You know they locked him in a closet half the time? It’s a wonder he’s still alive.” She shuddered and pulled her sweater closer to her chest.
“It’s amazing what people can survive,” I agreed, leaning back on the couch. The room was warm and I felt a little sleepy in the low light. “A lot of people don’t, I guess. But some people get out. Sometimes it seems like their life is a little better, even, because it started so awful.” I pet idly on the cat as he stretched across the cushion beside me.
Don lifted his head. “That’s like Rosie,” he murmured. He pulled himself up a little in his chair. His voice was low, barely audible, and he cleared his throat to make himself heard. “Rosie, you know.”
“Rosie, your ex?” I asked.
Lorrie looked over at Don. “She had it rough as a kid?” she asked. Sometimes Don needed a little encouragement.
He nodded. “About as rough as you can have it,” he said. Then he paused and took a hit off the vape pen, marshaling his words. At the best of times, Don’s manner of speaking was hesitant, and his sentences often sidestepped and then doubled back on themselves. Still, when he spoke, he was usually interesting. Lorrie and I waited.
“I guess I don’t know much about it,” he said. “Seems I remember her father lasted with the family three or four years after she was born. It was a bad place. Lots of brothers in the house, don’t know how many. And not one was good to her. She won’t tell you much about it, but she’ll tell you enough to know.” He paused and thought. “It was not a good place. Not for a girl to grow up.”
“Where was that?” I asked.
“Well, hmm. Somewhere north of Cody, Wyoming I believe.” Don sat up a little more in the chair. He groaned a little, leaning forward.
“It was near some big Indian reservation up there. She has always hated Indians because of that.” He chuckled a little at that thought. “The way she told it, every so often, some of the Indians would get to up-rising there. They’d come to town and cause a lot of trouble and scare everybody pretty bad. So the town would call in the Hells Angels and those guys would come through to put things right again.”
He shook his head. “She did love riding on the back of those bikes, even as a little girl. To her mind, the Indians were bad and the bikers were good. Eventually she’d learn cowboys are a pain in the ass. But that was later.” He threw up his free hand. A joke.
“Anyway.” He inhaled on the pen and exhaled a low cloud over the living room floor. “I believe she took a knife to her mother, finally, to get herself out of that family.”
“What?” Lorrie said.
“She took a knife? To her mother?” I repeated.
He nodded. “Had to get free of that place, you know. Rough place. Had to run. She was always running. That was Rosie. She ran from that house. Ran from one foster home to another. All through the state of Wyoming. Then she ran from Wyoming, and maybe some other places I don’t know. Somehow she ended up down here.”
“When I met her, she’d shown up in Wauneta with a carload of strangers.” He rocked back a little in his seat, looking up to summon the memory. “Hmm. No, I don’t believe she knew them. She didn’t go with them when they headed out of town. She was looking to keep clear of the authorities, so she stayed behind and she got a job at the diner in the truck stop, serving coffee to us loser cowboys. Wauneta was a good place to hide out.
“You wouldn’t say Rosie was real pretty, exactly, and she was mean as hell. So she did alright at that truck stop.” He paused. “It wasn’t a great place. They were running a brothel out of the other end, but she stayed clear of all that.”
Lorrie laughed. “You’re telling me there was a brothel in Wauneta?”
“Oh, yes.” Don nodded soberly. “You could get anything at that truck stop.”
Lorrie gave me an amused look.
“Now, I wasn’t into that, you know,” Don continued. “But I was cowboying out near Lamar in those days. When I needed a town, I went to Wauneta. I would get breakfast sometimes at that truck stop, get a few groceries. And I’d talk to her behind the counter. She had that dark, dark hair, you know. Black, almost. And she was a good girl. This was some rough country back then, and I was mixed up in all of it. But she wasn’t. No drinking, no drugs. Didn’t even smoke. She was too scared of getting caught out by the police and sent back to Wyoming.”
He stopped for a moment, looking upset. “That’s how I know she never took that pill that sent her to the hospital. It had to be some asshole who passed it to her.” He shook his head. “She never would’ve taken it herself.”
“Hmm?” He looked up from his thoughts. “Yeah. Someone passed her a pill someplace and it screwed up her head pretty badly. She ended up in the hospital at Holyoke. That’s where the State of Wyoming found her. In the hospital. They still had her name on some list. Told her she was going back to the system.
“Only she didn’t have to, they said. If she was a drug addict, she didn’t have to go back to Wyoming. She could go to North Platte and ride out her time getting clean. So even though she never did any of that shit, she said yes. She told them she was a drug addict and they kept their word. They took her up to North Platte.”
I had leaned forward so far, I was nearly off the couch. “Why would she still have been in the system?” I asked. “What time did she have to serve?”
Don shook his head. “No, no. The Foster system. She wasn’t old enough yet that they’d let her go.”
“Old enough? How old was she?”
Don struggled for a minute, lifting a finger and putting it down again, and muttering a string of “hmms” and “and thens” until it came to him. “Well, I think she must have been sixteen, I guess. That sounds right. Yeah, I’m going to say she was sixteen when she was working at Wauneta.”
I sat back.
“So they kept her in rehab until she was eighteen?” Lorrie asked.
“I guess so. You know, I really don’t know much about that period. When I heard from her again, it was a few years later. I got a call from her one night. Late in the night. She was in Omaha by then, working for Omaha Power and Light. She—you’ll like this—she had gone to some tech school after they let her out of North Platte and she’d gotten certified as a car mechanic.” He smiled lightly, adjusting his cap.
“A mechanic? Rosie?” Lorrie shook her head.
“That’s how she ended up working at Omaha Power. She was a mechanic for them, just Rosie and a bunch of rough guys. And, man, they were hard on her. They made her days at work pretty awful.”
Don leaned back, thinking. “I don’t know whether she called someone else from Wauneta to get my phone number or if I had given it to her one of those times in the diner. To be honest, I don’t remember a whole lot from those days. But she called me on the phone out where I was, on the ranch. It was late at night. And then I loaded up my—” he paused. “Yes, it was my ‘73 Ford, three on the column, with the horse trailer on the back. She asked me to get her, so I drove right up there. I brought her home.” He lifted his vape pen and inhaled.
While Don had been talking, the light outside the window had faded from gray afternoon to evening. The room felt close. The murmur from the television was low and melodic, and a flash of reds and blues from the screen played across the floor. I could hear the weight of Don’s pause after the word “home” for a few moments after the sentence fell away. He seemed to hear it too—what “home” might have meant. For that girl, with the life she’d had.
He cleared his throat. “Hmm, well. Anyway. Somehow it was decided, even before we made it back to Lamar, that we were going to get married. We weren’t back on the ranch a little while before we went up to that little white church, south of Sheridan County.
“I told my parents about the wedding just the day before—and that was a whole thing. You can imagine. We got married in September, and I guess Rosie was a little pregnant already, cause Nash was born the next May.” He adjusted his cap on his head and took another puff.
“It must have been handy,” I said, “having a car mechanic for a wife out on the ranch.”
“You know, you’d think it would,” he chuckled. “But, damn, she hated cars. She hated fooling with them. I think Omaha took that right out of her. She’d gotten sick of that real quick.”
“What Rosie loved,” he said, “were the horses.”
Lorrie nodded. “That’s right,” she agreed. “Rosie and her horses.”
“I think it was the one foster home she liked,” Don said to me, “up there in Wyoming. The family—they weren’t ranch owners, you know. They were ranch workers.” He paused. “And, by the way, there’s a whole world of difference between those two things.” He pointed a finger to emphasize that last point. “But they taught her the one thing she loved.”
He smiled to himself. “I like to think of her riding across that big Wyoming ranch. It was the one time as a kid that she was happy. And as soon as she was out on the ranch with me, that’s all she wanted to do. All day. She would ride out in the morning and come home at dark. You couldn’t ever get her down.
“At least I could give her that, you know. Rosie, she could ride out on those horses every time she wanted.” Don brought the vape pen to his mouth. He exhaled a long thread of smoke and then settled back into the recliner. “It wasn’t enough. She was headed for bigger things. But it made her happy.” He shrugged a little against the fabric of the chair. “You know, for a while.”
Tonya Audyn Morton is the publisher of Juke.
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