Corrupted Horse by Laura Bevon; for more information, visit http://laurabevon.deviantart.com/

Corrupted Horse by Laura Bevon; for more information, visit http://laurabevon.deviantart.com/

Of Course, Of Course

 by J. Bowers

Before the Brylcreemed architect and his blonde bride parked their Studebaker Lark in front of the brownstone rancher at 17230 Valley Spring in San Fernando, she’d never heard him mention wanting a pet, let alone one as pricey and demanding as a horse.

It all began January 5, 1961, two weeks after the young couple’s honeymoon, which we can assume was passionate, based on how often they touch each other in the pilot. The sponsored camera lingers on the Studebaker as the architect scoops his wife over the threshold and kisses her sweaty mouth.

17230 Valley Spring rests on a fashionable cul-de-sac, with a brick patio and Astroturf yard visible from the beige living room’s floor-length windows. As a licensed architect (and therefore, an exacting man, a planner), he had the place gutted, then hired a decorator to make sure the appliances (olive green and showroom new) matched the ads every 1961 bride dog-eared in her magazines. As a result, the architect’s wife finds her first adult home a lot like church, in that she feels gentle pressure to be awed as she performs the expected rituals, running her manicured fingertips along the olive Formica countertops, swiveling on/off the faucets hot/cold. She beams at her husband, who stands on the patio, arms akimbo, surveying the Dutch-doored garage.

Here, the architect plans to “work from home,” an avant-garde notion he developed after suffering nervous exhaustion at his last nine-to-five, where he’d specialized in the design of drive-in hamburger huts. But when he steps into his new home office for the first time, the architect sees that the previous tenant left quite a bit behind, including a ball of barbed wire, some poorly stored rakes, and a gleaming palomino quarter horse.

“Well, how about that—a horse!” cries the architect with boyish joy.

It neighs hello.

“Oh, let’s get out of here—get him out of here, do SOMETHING!” shrieks the architect’s wife, leaping once more into his waiting arms. Overwhelmed by the thought of taking domestic responsibility for a husband and a horse (American wifehood then came standard with an unpaid housekeeper position), she goes inside to call the ASPCA. The woman who answers the phone says the shelter has no room for livestock. Instead, she offers the number of a local horse trader who will buy the animal sight unseen for fifty whole dollars, if they aren’t interested in keeping it, that is.

When the architect’s wife returns to tell her husband the good news, he is already grooming the horse with a brush he found. It just doesn’t feel right, he muses, to put it out of house and home, even if its home is now theirs. Having never read Black Beauty, the architect’s wife reassures him that horses don’t mind being sold; they probably enjoy getting to see different parts of the country, meet new people, and try new things. To her credit, she does not mention dog food or glue factories, even when the horse trader pulls up with his ramshackle flatbed. The horse limps when money is exchanged, and only recovers after the trader drives off-screen, calling them a couple of crooks.

“See, honey? He wants to stay,” says the architect, patting the horse’s neck, finding it not at all odd that everything worked out just so.

The architect’s wife admits it is a pretty horse, with well-fed flanks that glint like fresh pennies in the late afternoon sun. But the animal’s health and beauty also arouse her suspicion. She’s sure something so large and expensive and alive would never simply be forgotten, even in the most chaotic of moves.

“There must be a good reason why it was left behind,” she thinks aloud.

The architect quips about gift horses and mouths.

The new horse marred the candlelit occasion of the couple’s first dinner in their new home by smudging its rubbery muzzle repeatedly against the dining room’s plate glass window, then baring grass-stained teeth at the underdone pot roast. A city girl, her creature encounters restricted to picture books, zoos, and an aunt’s elderly terrier, the architect’s wife had thought animals weren’t smart enough to realize that their faces and our faces are the same thing. But the truth was they always look you right in the eye, even as they bite or scratch or kick. The circus camel she’d been forced to ride when she was ten taught her that much, Maybelline lashes blinking as it deposited a warm gob of clover drool atop her sweet pigtailed head.

Ignoring his wife’s obvious misgivings, the architect designs his new office around the existing box stall, favoring a Western motif. Despite investing in tack and cowboy boots, he seldom rides his horse. Instead, he prefers to whimsically incorporate it into their daily life, as a child would a favorite stuffed animal. For instance, he takes it along on their zoo date so it can “meet the zebras,” and purchases a small television set for the barn so it won’t “get bored” when left to its own devices.

A city girl, the architect’s wife doesn’t know enough about horses to judge whether it is odd for them to escape as often as this one does, or be so destructive. One afternoon it crushes a new patio chaise, luxuriously stretching its hooves through the striped rubber webbing. Another, it noses through the neighbor’s mail, leaving an unpaid parking ticket shredded under the silk chrysanthemums. There are several neighborhood incidents involving laundry and manure.

It is, in short, the worst horse. Still, the architect says the scent of hay and warm leather stirs something deep and lost within him, a wildness he hasn’t felt since boyhood trail overnights at Camp Nawakwa. It speaks to him, he tells her, pinball eyes manic.

“That’s nice, dear,” replies the architect’s wife.

At night she lies awake in her MPAA-sanctioned twin bed, wishing he’d creep into hers, as he did on their honeymoon. Before they wed, the architect had promised her a life of ease and adventure. Now he won’t leave his horse alone overnight. Which isn’t to say he never tries; for their second anniversary, to his credit, he books the penthouse suite at the Chateau Marmont, but they end up having to cancel when the horse colics on a pineapple Jell-O mold Mrs. Addison left on her windowsill.

“I’ll make it up to you next year, dear,” says the architect.

“It’s okay,” lies the architect’s wife, pushing her electric mixer against the bowl so hard the beaters clatter on the Pyrex.

 ***

After three seasons spent in her gleaming kitchen, creaming yolks and chopping scallions for the deviled eggs her husband left half-eaten on his drafting table, the architect’s wife finds a hobby of her own. She enrolls in a night course at the local art college, where she also disrobes thrice weekly so bearded beatniks and sweater-clad co-eds might draw and sculpt her curvaceous form. She likes to imagine her nude blondeness perched on easels throughout the Valley, all those hungry eyes on her or simulacra of her—the thought makes her feel desired in a way her husband can’t or won’t, now that he believes himself to be the chosen mouthpiece of a sentient equine. After each class, she lets the patchouli-scented teacher’s assistant press her thighs into the quilted upholstery of the architect’s once-prized Studebaker Lark, then drives home to perfume herself back into his adoring wife.

She becomes adept at keeping up appearances, at ushering the architect into hallways when he brings up his horse at cocktail parties, her smile discreet, her skirt swaying like a bell. Her macramé owls are sold at all the church bazaars, and she spearheads a bake sale to fund-raise for the local youth center. Come summer she tans on the patio, the scalloped elastic of a purple department store bikini cutting into her childless hips as she watches the horse browse among her begonias.

When her husband emerges from the barn to retrieve his pet, she feigns sleep behind tortoiseshell sunglasses. She’s found that, like an alcoholic, he is at his most tractable when allowed to think he’s successfully camouflaged his problem. Chief among his delusions is the idea that his wife cares deeply about the lawn, which remains an Astroturf dream even though it never rains in this iteration of San Fernando. He yanks his horse’s mouth away from the flowerbed and joins in with the canned laughter, thinking he’s evaded her wrath.

Theirs is a sexless marriage. By their sixth anniversary, between starting a backyard juice bar, helping the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor overcome her fear of riding, and his sudden delusion that he and his horse are now agents for something called the Secret Intelligence Agency, the architect has grown worn and thin. When his wife expresses frustration that he hasn’t ever wanted to start a family, he martyrs himself by sleeping in the barn. It isn’t funny anymore. At the supermarket, the neighbor ladies corner the architect’s wife between the glossy fruit pyramids, asking when they’ll hear the pitter-patter of little feet. Blithe with amphetamines, she sighs, “Oh, we’re trying,” then steers her cart toward the carrots, damp with refrigerated mist.

That night, the architect says his horse won a color TV in a radio giveaway, and installs it in the barn instead of the living room. But his wife still doesn’t leave, because she has come to relish the unbridled freedom her husband’s psychosis provides. While he wastes afternoons in the barn, making crank calls in an odd cowboy drawl, she cruises the Valley high on Obetrol, the Beach Boys, and not doing the laundry—a real California girl.

A competent draughtsman, she works on her husband’s blueprints while he snores away in his bed, so he won’t embarrass himself in front of clients. It should disturb her how easily he leapt to the conclusion that his horse finishes them—an equine Frank Lloyd Wright—but this kind of thing has become commonplace. She listens when he announces how glad he is to get this project done so fast, how the idea for the fountain in the central atrium hit him like a bolt from the blue, boy, that horse must be some kind of lucky charm. She beams politically, telling him she’s so glad he’s doing well.

Of course of course she knows it’s impossible, the exhausted delusion of an overtired mind, the unavoidable side effect of her double life. But one day, while the architect’s wife is hanging laundry, the horse noses open its Dutch door with sitcom aplomb, winking those Maybelline eyes. And she knows, with sudden sharpness, that someday still more will be asked of her. If she stays, she’ll pay for her unlikely deliverance from Tupperware parties and bridge nights.

The architect’s wife remembers wondering what happened to the previous inhabitants of 17230 Valley Spring in San Fernando, the couple—now she’s sure it was a couple—who left their golden horse behind. Swept up in the aftermath of her husband’s decision to keep the animal, she’d never asked the neighbors whose it was. Still she knows in her bones that when the old homeowners drove away, it wasn’t like they forgot to grab the dish rack, or left some paint behind to match the baseboards. It had been a ridding, a casting out.

The architect’s wife feels unsafe. In her nightmares, blonde babies wearing her face slide off the horse’s broad yellow back and fall through the patio like it’s water.

 ***

In the final episode of the sixth and last season of their marriage, the A-plot follows the architect as he tries to stop his horse from pursuing a career in veterinary medicine. The B-plot deals with the architect’s wife’s aged father injuring himself while trying to help her with household chores. Each time the old man gets hurt, his misfortune is either directly or indirectly blamed on the architect, who is, as usual, preoccupied with his horse’s shenanigans.

Meanwhile, the architect’s wife is made to do uncomfortable things, such as rubbing Ben-Gay into her groaning dad’s hairy back. He strained it moving furniture that the architect (it is heavily implied) should have been there to move. During this awkward family tableau, the architect, sporting a horrible cardigan, arrives to announce that he’s just returned from chasing his horse through the nearby college campus. The architect’s wife asks him how on Earth the horse made it all the way to campus, and he replies, without artifice, that maybe it found a student bus ticket!

Still new enough here to be shocked, the old man twists around on the chaise lounge, his face a rictus of disappointment in his daughter’s sexual choices, his greasy back glistening in the high key lighting. The architect’s wife tells her husband to finish his father-in-law’s back massage, tosses the bottle of liniment at him, and walks off-screen.

That night, she sits awake in her twin bed, so much like the one she grew up in, wringing her fingers and wondering how it came to this. The glare of her bedside lamp stirs the architect, who rolls over to grab his alarm clock.

“It’s two o’clock, what are you doing up so late?”

“Thinking,” she tells him.

“About what?”

“About the kook I married.”

The architect scrambles to his wife’s side, but she stiffens at his touch. She asks “Why do you hate my father so much?” but she’s really asking, for the last time, why she should remain married to someone who’s much more interested in his trick pony than the woman who’s stood between him and the loony bin for years.

Oblivious, the architect keeps telling his wife that if she doesn’t want him around, she should just say so, and he’ll go sleep in the barn. He repeats this line several times, and each time he sounds more like a teenage boy begging to get grounded in his room with his comic books and records. It is unclear, as ever, how him sleeping elsewhere would affect her, given their separate beds. He does not make it sound like a punishment, then slinks downstairs with his pillow, visibly wounded, when she agrees he should go.

This is the last scene that ever features the architect’s wife.

It is easy to leave her where the camera does, alone in a dowdy nightgown, staring at the closet where she keeps her luggage, obviously making a choice. It is easy to forget about her because the camera hasn’t ever acknowledged her as anything more than a live-in housekeeper, a nosy threat or hindrance to the architect’s harmless fun. The episode’s rollicking conclusion centers on the architect assisting with triage in his horse’s new backyard veterinary clinic, which is already all the rage among the animal set. The woman of the house isn’t mentioned again, not even when her dad slips off the box he’s using to spy on his son-in-law, and konks himself unconscious. The architect manages to convince the old man that the baby elephant, goat, and Holstein cow he thinks he saw in the barn were hallucinations. As he helps the injured man up, the architect does not worry aloud whether his wife heard any of this brouhaha.

But every second he doesn’t acknowledge her continuing existence could also mean she’s gotten away clean. As the credits roll, the architect’s wife is speeding away in her Studebaker Lark, olive green scarf whipping around blonde hair and tortoiseshell sunglasses, disco on the wind. She is remembering that her given name is Carol, not sweetie or honey or the architect’s wife. And when her mouth tries out the sound, it’s like a spell that lets her remember there are other places in this automatic nation, whole modern cities with apartments and offices and freeways, where people never see horses except on TV.

JessBowers

About J. Bowers

J. Bowers has appeared or is forthcoming in The Indiana ReviewOyez ReviewRedividerThe Laurel ReviewZone 3, and other journals. She holds a Ph.D. in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri, where she is now a postdoctoral fellow, and an M.A. in the same from Hollins University. She lives in Columbia, MO with her husband, two cats, three fish tanks, and a horse who only makes horselike noises.

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