(Note: not positive if this will become the first section of a whole-ass novel, or just a limited short story as-is, but either way, it's something I've been working on and I hope you enjoy it! Thanks for subscribing!)
Tamara laughed as she kicked the bucket; an old, soggy, black rubber bucket that had been in their barn since Jesus’s time, if not before. All day she’d been thinking of euphemisms for death. Bought the farm was the most apt, but her favorite was slipped away. It sounded like her dad had somehow gotten lost in a crowd or slipped out of his chair and just needed to be scooped up under his armpits and put back. It wasn’t like that. When Nick used to fall it was an ordeal. If Tamara’s spine could talk, it would tell of him raging obscenities in her ear while she dragged him out from between his La-Z-Boy and the wall.
Gave up the ghost was another good one. Had Nick given up his ghosts as he passed on or had she inherited those along with the farm? Jesus. The thought made her want to drink. Finding beer in the mini fridge in the tack room, she took long draws, parched from talking all day. So many people had crushed her hands, telling her how great her dad was, how massive his shoes were to fill. She felt eyes on her during the brief ceremony and whiskey-soaked party that followed, as if the riders and equine industry mavens expected her to step into her dad’s boots and become ‘The Great Nick McConnell’ right before their eyes. They didn’t know, she thought, as she opened another beer. None of them knew.
Inhaling deeply, it was a relief to smell the barn smells; sweat, oats, hay, manure, leather, and dust. So much dust. Even when she bothered to clean, it didn’t show, so she didn’t bother. Still, she’d take those smells a thousand times over the acrid scent of funeral flowers. She sat on a bale of hay jutting from the stack, and it scratched at her thighs through her dress pants. Tamara could just make out voices at the end of the driveway by the party tent; Phil and the rest of the staff were sending off the last few guests. She strained to listen for a particular deep voice and was startled when a mare reached over the stall and sneezed green snot onto her suit coat. Taking it off, Tamara scowled at her. This suit was the first new clothing she’d bought in a decade, and it didn’t even last a day. Now it would join the sundresses and impractical negligee she’d bought for her honeymoon in the back of her closet.
“You forgot someone,” said the particular deep voice from the barn door. Speak of the devil. Her groom stood backlit in the barn doorway. Squinting, she saw that he held the urn that held her dad. Dammit. When she had excused herself from the memorial, she’d left the urn sitting on the table under the tent, not sure what to do with it. She had secretly hoped Phil would just make it disappear. Nick hadn’t left any instructions, so Tamara was making this all up as she went. Since an open coffin wasn’t an option with his bloated, yellow face, and he famously loathed churches, she had ultimately decided to host a memorial at the farm and have his body burned and put into a bronze death cookie jar. She had no idea if Nick would have approved of any of her choices, since he didn’t really approve of dying, but he would have loved hearing everyone sing his praises at the memorial. Maybe he heard from inside the urn, like a genie in a bottle? The thought made her laugh. What was wrong with her? This was all just so strange.
“Oh, God, sorry. Thanks,” she said, jumping up to take the urn from Justin.
“Don’t say I never gave you nothin’,” he said, smiling and giving her an awkward hug around the urn. It was impossible not to note the irony of her dad coming between them, again. “Good turnout today.”
She nodded and appraised him. Earlier she had seen him floating around the visitation, but they hadn’t had a chance to speak. He was one of the few who hadn’t given a speech, not surprisingly. Justin wasn’t one to seek attention, and he knew too much about Nick to sling post-mortem platitudes. It had been over a year since she’d seen him, and his hair was longer, he was tanner, and a little thicker, wearing nice pants and a button-down shirt under a leather jacket. And he had come. She could feel her shoulders relaxing.
“Yeah,” she said. “Did you see the Greens? All the way from Shelbyville. On a Wednesday? That’s got to be three hundred miles.”
“Your dad was a big deal.”
“Right,” she said, unconsciously hugging the urn to her chest. “The man, the myth, the-” she yawned and then laughed lightly at herself, waving her hand. “It’s been a long day. What do I do with this?”
Justin looked around and his eyes alit on something in the tack room. He took the urn back from her and she followed him, watching him shove the urn unceremoniously onto a shelf of dusty, spider-web filled helmets. “There. He would have liked that,” he said. “Now he can keep an eye on everything, like a god. What’s the word?”
“Omnipresent? Omnipotent?” Tamara asked over her shoulder, bending to take two more beers out of the mini fridge. Her head had finally stopped aching and her scattered feelings were lining up straighter. A new feeling had started crawling up her belly when she spotted Justin’s coat in the crowd and being this close to him in the tack room brought it into focus. She handed him the beer can and he turned and gave her an easy smile. That’s what was most different about him; his easy smile was back.
“You look nice all dressed up,” he said.
“Pfff. Don’t get too excited. I’ve got jeans under this.” His eyes made her feel off-balanced. She walked back into the aisle of the barn, but instead of sitting down on the bale of hay, she adjusted the forelock of the snot-flinging mare and felt his eyes on her. “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
“I couldn’t not be here for this,” he said, popping open his beer. “And it’s only six hours.”
“Feels like longer. I haven’t heard from you in a long time. Since court.”
“I hate court,” Justin said, tilting his head to drink. “Rachel didn’t come?”
“I knew she wouldn’t,” she said, leaning back against the stall, propping one foot behind her, her long dark brown hair hanging in a curtain around her face. Now she was glad she’d left it down; Justin loved her hair. She said quietly, “I hate court, too.”
He nodded and they drank quietly. “I’m surprised Rach couldn’t even be bothered to come for his…passing.”
Tamara smirked. All these soft words to describe the hard thing. No one could just say ‘he died.’ She didn’t want to talk about Nick anymore. Or her sister. “I think we did OK, overall, though, don’t you? In court? The whole thing isn’t set up to be real civil, but as far as divorces go, I think ours was alright.”
“Yeah,” he said. “We did alright.”
The warmth in her belly was crawling up her throat. There were so many things she’d imagined saying if she had him alone again, away from the lawyers and mediators and her dad.
“Well…” Justin drawled, finishing his beer, and giving the gelding a hard pat on the neck.
It was now or never. He was OK; his easy smile was back. She was OK; hers could come back now, too. They could run the farm how they’d always wanted. She could breathe again.
They spoke at the same time.
“I wanted to call you,” she rushed.
“I think I should probably be heading out…you did?” he asked.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, gripping her beer can so tightly it crinkled. “You should get on your way before it gets dark. Thanks for-“
“Why did you want to call me?”
She swallowed. “The last few months. Dad was real sick. We had to pull out of the Rolex last minute and-”
She winced. “And sell some of the horses to pay the mortgage. Roger left to go ride for Huntington. It was all just-“
“Rough.” “Yeah,” she whispered, looking at the floor. “And…lonely? I could have used some help.” She looked up at him. “I could have used you.”
“I know. I’m sorry, but-“
“I know,” she said, shaking her head dismissively. “I get it and I really do forgive you.”
“You forgive me?” he said, cocking an eyebrow.
“For leaving. For wanting the divorce. I mean it makes sense. But now-” She knew she was bumbling this all up, but she pushed on, avoiding his skeptical face. “Things with dad were bad and you couldn’t pass up a chance to run Windsley Farms. I couldn’t go, so we split up. But now-”
“You could have come. You chose not to,” he said, slowly.
“No,” she said, snapping her head back toward him. “He was dying. Mom had passed, Rachel was gone. I was the only one left!”
“He was dying for decades.”
She started to argue, but he put up his hand. “I think I’ve come to understand why you did it, but you put your life, ourlife, on hold so you could take care of him, even though he treated us like shit. Even though he gave you no credit for running this place. I know today is to honor him or whatever, but babe, he was a…” He ran his hand through his hair and looked away, his mouth a tight line. “Nick never cared about anyone but himself.”
The fight died in her throat. He had called her babe. He still felt it, too. Horses shifted in their stalls. Somewhere in a pasture a dog barked. She said, “I do get it, and I am OK with forgiving and forgetting. We can start again.” He shook his head and she pressed, “Most people couldn’t have stayed through the ugly end. It was too hard. I get it.”
“Is that what you think?” Justin asked. “That we were all too weak? That you were the only one with, what…the fortitude to stay?”
“I just know that I was the one,” she said, her voice sharpening, “Taking care of the barn and the riders, making impossible decisions, helping Nick while he puked up blood. I was the one making it all seem fine so that the world could still have its mighty Nick McConnell and not know that he was a-“ she broke off, realizing that she was yelling.
“A lousy fucking drunk?” Justin finished. “A cruel, domineering prick who drove everyone away and drank himself to death?”
“A troubled man. A perfectionist! An elite trainer! Was he tough? Sure, but the best always are.”
“Tough? No. Not tough. He made everyone feel small, like we were failing him all the time.”
“Look what he built!” she gestured around her.
“And, look what he tore down,” he said, gesturing at her. “I’m not having this fight again. It’s not why I came.”
“Fine. I’m just saying that I am why this place is still mostly standing, and why the McConnell name still means anything!” She stalked into the tack room and came back with another beer, not offering him one, and sat back down on the hay bale.
Justin walked around, peering into the stalls that still held horses. Finally, he said, “I’m sorry you had to do all of that on your own. I never wanted to leave you with him, but I had to leave.”
They were quiet for a few minutes, listening to the night noises beginning outside. It was dinner time. The horses had begun poking their heads out of their stalls, staring at them pointedly, pawing the ground.
“I almost came,” she said. “Maybe a month after you left- before you served me papers. It had been a bad day. He’d fired another groom and was insisting on taking Star to Fairfield that weekend, even though she was lame. I couldn’t convince him-“
“No one could ever convince him of anything.”
“Right. So, I had my stuff packed,” Tamara stared ahead of her, picturing that night as she spoke. “I had so many ideas for Windsley and I was missing you terribly…but then,” she dropped her head and she felt Justin kneel down next to her on the cold barn floor. She leaned her forehead against his. Her eyes burned, and she waited for tears, but none came. All week she’d been expecting tears that didn’t come. Was she broken?
“But then?” he asked, putting an arm around her and rubbing her arm.
“But then,” she went on, when her breathing was more even, “He fell. I heard him fall, just as I was walking out the door. Had my keys in my hand and everything. He had a coughing fit and fell against his dresser. Didn’t hurt himself or anything, but he…he needed his meds, and needed to bathe, so…”
“So you stayed.”
“So I stayed. And I bathed him.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
She shrugged. “Would it have made a difference? I stayed in the end.”
He didn’t respond but kept holding her and rubbing warmth into her cold body until she whispered, “But now we have a chance to do everything differently.”
“No,” he said, carefully pulling away from her and getting to his feet. “That’s not why I came today. I’m not…we’re not….”
“This place needs a lot of work,” she said, talking loudly over him. He needed to understand. “It’s not as nice as the glorious Windsley Farms, but it has so much potential. Now that dad’s gone, we can make it what we want. It can be ours.” When she saw that he just standing there, shaking his head back and forth, she talked faster, more frantically. “Maybe we could take a little break while we figure things out. Go on a trip or something. When was the last time we did that?” Back and forth, back and forth. Her voice rose in a heightened, manic monologue. “Mexico for our honeymoon, right? That’s too long! Phil can watch the farm.” “Or maybe I sell off here all together? Maybe I come with you to Winsdsley afterall?”
“No. I’m sorry,” he said simply, turning his back to her and nuzzling the nose of the gelding in a stall on the other side of the aisle.
“No?!” She stopped.
“No,” he said, not turning around. “I know you’re going to do great things with McConnell’s, but I’m not coming back. And you can’t come with me. We’re divorced.”
“What if we did long-distance it for a while? We don’t have to rush into anything. I can visit up there, you can come here on weekends. It’s only six hours, right?” She was about to reach for his elbow when she the pain in his profile and stopped, her hand suspended in the air. “Justin, please?”
He finally turned to face her, and she rushed into him, aiming for a kiss. He angled his face away and gently took her arms to hold her back. Her throat burned, and she dropped her head in mortification, but when she tried to yank herself out of his grasp, he held her firmly and whispered into her hair, “I’m so sorry.”
She looked up, pleading into his eyes, “Please, just think about-“
“Tam, I’ve met someone else.” He said it so simply, like it just slipped out, like it wouldn’t make her want to slip away. “She’s a rider at Windsley. Her name is Wendy. Daniels. Do you know her? She’s on the circuit.”
“I don’t understand. It’s only been a year,” she mumbled, feeling dizzy and out of control.
“It happened fast.”
She backed away from him, head reeling. Was that why he took the job there? How long had he known this person? Hot with embarrassment, she ducked into the grain stall and not knowing what else to do, she started filling the wheelbarrow with feed. After a moment, she could hear him unwinding the hose and watering the horses down the long rows of stalls. They worked quietly for a long while and she was grateful to him for giving her time to scrape her pride off the floor. She felt hot but also clammy, thick-headed, bruised inside and out. How had he left and started this whole life when hers had stalled where it was? The whole time he was gone, even at stupid court, she’d secretly thought he just needed to get away from Nick and would come back to her in time. She never imagined he’d start a different life with someone else.
What about her life?
When they caught up at the last stall, she managed to say, “But you called me babe.”
“What?” he asked, startled.
“Earlier, you called me babe.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Must be habit.”
That stung in a whole new way, but she nodded, searching her mind for other tactics to make him understand, to see what she saw, ways to get him to agree with her plan. She said, “I guess it’s normal that you’d date other people,” she said, ignoring the acid rising in her throat. He started to shake his head again and she wanted to hold his head still between her hands, to scream into his face, to make him hear her.
“No,” Justin said, turning off the hose and looking directly at her. “You’re not hearing me. I can’t have you there and I’m not coming back here. I want to stay friends, I can even help you figure out what to do with McConnell’s, if you want, but what we had is over. We both need to move on.”
Tamara felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. She sat back down on the hay, rocking a little and staring at the stained and dusty barn floor in front of her. I missed it? I missed my life?
They were quiet for a few minutes. When he finished the watering, he put away the hose and the wheelbarrow, and came and stood beside her. “I…I really should be heading out.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“But we’ll talk. Soon. Please do call any time. And when you’re ready, Wendy wants to meet you. I think you’d like her. She works hard. She’s been reserve champion a few times.”
“Sure,” she said, the acid in her chest threatening to spill. She didn’t want to hear anything else about this woman who was marrying her husband, who was living her life. Tamara just wanted to go to bed. She would drink herself into nothingness tonight and figure it out in the morning.
“Yeah, well. Thanks. She’ll be excited.” Justin said, hesitantly. “The Jane McConnell of McConnell Farms. You’re a bit of a legend, too.”
Tamara walked over to the haystack and picked up her jacket, then turned to him and said in a formal, cold manner. “Please don’t worry about me, or the farm. I’ll figure it out. Thank you for coming.”
“If there’s anything I can do,” he stammered, clearly taken aback by her change in tone.
“There isn’t.” “Ok,” he said, “Well, I know you’ll get McConnell’s on its feet again. It’ll be better than ever.”
Tamara nodded and they walked together toward his truck.
He looked toward the old farmhouse and said, “You gonna do the renovations on the house you always wanted?”
She exhaled. “I’m going to burn it down…and build a one-person yurt.”
He laughed, but when he saw she wasn’t laughing, he said, “That’s a great idea, but build more than a yurt. You’ll need room for others, in time.” She didn’t respond. After he’d opened the door of his truck, he reached out for a hug. She let him put his arms around her, but she didn’t move hers. “Listen,” he whispered into her ear, “Just because your dad didn’t love you right, doesn’t mean you’re not worth loving. He didn’t see you. You gotta figure out how to, I don’t know, how to see yourself now.”
Tears, actual tears formed in her eyes and were about to spill when she pulled away. Kicking the gravel with her dress shoe, she noticed that the shiny black was now scratched and gray. Nothing stayed nice here. Just before Justin pulled away, she said, “You know, of all of dad’s vices, the only one he could ever kick was his oxygen habit.”
“Oh, God, Tam,” Justin said, wincing and laughing despite himself.
“That’s a good one, right?” She said, giving him a dull, exhausted smile.
“You’ll be alright,” he called as he waved and pulled away. The way his words hung there over the gravel driveway, she couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement. Then his truck was nothing but taillights and she was alone, in the dark, in his dust.
The phone rang in the tack room, and she walked back into the barn.
“McConnell’s,” she said, picking up the old black phone in the tack room. “Uh-huh. I see. How old?” As she listened, she jotted a few things down on a filthy pad of paper nearby and something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. It was her dad’s urn, the only shiny thing in the room. She cleared her throat and said, “Yeah, no problem. I can handle that. I’m Tamara, the owner. Come on by whenever, I’m always here.”
When she turned off the tack room light and slid the barn door shut with a click, she thought about how nothing stayed shiny here for long. Soon, the urn would be dusty and forgotten like the rest of the old schooling helmets on the shelf. The slow, insistent work rhythm of the farm would see to that. Dust was like kudzu here, covering the darkest corners, the sharpest edges; turning everything from ashes to ashes, dust to dust.