John Matthew Fox

Horse Song

dirk drove home with runes of baby blue paint across his overalls and forearms. When he looked in the rear-view mirror, he realized he even had flecks on his eyelids. He hated eyelid flecks. Couldn’t use paint thinner or scrub hard, just had to wait them off. It never made any sense how they got there in the first place–he blinked, sure, but often enough that paint could land? He closed both eyes for a second and the light bled through in polka dots.

At home, the dust from the van flew into the horses’ pen, making them toss their heads, canter away. One of the horses was missing, the one he called Blacky because he didn’t want to remember its name, which always insulted Marla. In the bedroom, he unloaded the bills from his pocket into the shoe box in the closet, and they made a nice stack with his other earnings, money that would never see the inside of a bank or be stolen by the federal government. He counted it again and considered how much he’d take for the Thrasher Throat concert this Saturday.

On the way to the dining room, he saw the object hanging in the office, and it stopped him mid-step. The room wasn’t really an office, more like a place where he and Marla kept all their bills and paperwork, which wasn’t that much because as far as the government and other agencies were concerned, he hadn’t existed for the last two decades. Since it was hanging over the desk, he goose-stepped over the boxes of junk until his face was right next to it. It was one of those hanging toys, with shiny circles on strings dangling from a crosshair and a music box at the top. He felt repulsed that Marla would own one. It was for kids. He unhooked it from the ceiling and threw it down beside two crates filled with old horse toys.

He was in the kitchen drinking a beer when she swung in, sweaty and shrink-wrapped in her neon green pants. With all the exercise she got with the horses, he didn’t know how she stayed so fat.

“What’s with the hanging thing?” he asked, motioning toward the office.

“That’s been up for a week without bothering you,” Marla said, “and it’s called a mobile. Barbara gave it to me.” She took off her red scarf.

“It’s for kids,” he grumbled.

“Exactly.” She walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.

The curt answer irritated him, as well as the way her lumps bulged under the fabric as she pulled out a trough-like dish of what she called casserole and he called mess. “You better not start decorating with that type of stuff,” he said.

Instead of answering him, she stuck the dish into the microwave, then leaned against the stove and brushed her bangs out of her eyes. “Remember how I was telling you about Angel’s leg sore? It’s not getting any better.” She grimaced and moved her hands in circles as if imagining the leg. “It looks kind of yucky in there, just all messed up, you know, like when that pole tore the chunk out of your leg, only worse.” She stared at the floor as if she wasn’t seeing the floor until the microwave ding interrupted her. She transferred the dish to the table. “Dinner’s served.”

“I’m going golfing with Chuck,” Dirk said, throwing his can in the trash and grabbing a six-pack from the fridge.

“Right now? Without dinner?”

“I’ll eat this,” Dirk said as he opened the door, holding up the pack by the plastic strands. As he left, he heard the lonely glop of casserole as it met her plate. From the garage he fetched his clubs, shitty except for the titanium four and six iron he’d gotten secondhand from a friend, and stopped for fast food on the way, reaching the course as the light started to fade.

Chuck sat in the golf cart in the woods near hole ten, with only four left of his six-pack. “Hey man,” he said. “The grass janitor just left, so the course is ours.”

They started on hole eleven with a few mulligans they called practice swings. Chuck hit a strong one just off the green—or so they thought in the dimming light—before Dirk finally connected with a solid whack, a low hit that hooked at the end. Five holes later, all the cans were empty except for one, the scores were soaring and the golf cart weaving. Once Chuck had some in him, he drove faster, a kind of freedom that he exercised only on the course after a DUI ten years ago, and he slowed only after Dirk nearly fell out on a sharp curve. On hole fifteen the sprinklers finally caught up to them, so they skipped to the seventeenth, where Dirk asked Chuck if he knew what a mobile was.

“Sure do,” Chuck said. “It’s a home that you can move.”

“No, no, I’m talking about those things that hang above baby cribs,” said Dirk.

Chuck hunched his eyebrows. “I always called those baby chandeliers.”

“Well, whatever they are, Marla’s got one.”

“I remember Michelle got one of those before she popped out Nate.”

“See? See? That’s what worries me. Now that she’s pushing forty she’s getting all anxious on me, like something activated her biological timer.”

“Biological time bomb.”

“Yeah, her bomb. And she’s all ready to blow up big.”

Chuck lined up his shot and took a practice swing, his hips and shoulders rotating too far. At the end of the swing, his club behind him, he said: “So you going to get one?”

Dirk stared at the faint glow above the horizon, filtered through the leaves of oak and fir trees, and took so long thinking about the question that all the light nearly washed out. His head was so fuzzy from the alcohol that he didn’t know how to answer. He never took time to think about why he didn’t want one. He just knew he didn’t. Probably because he didn’t want anyone that leaned on him for support. Marla alone exhausted him with her requests; a kid would kill his free time. Someone always looking up to you, asking you for things. He didn’t need that.

Chuck leaned on his eight iron. “Shit, man. It’s a hell of a lot of work.”

After it got so dark that after a swing they only saw the balls glow for a moment before the gloom swallowed them, the grass janitor, wielding a club, started chasing them. So they left. They stopped at the bowling alley, celebrating with pizza when Charlie rolled his first 240. By the time Dirk got home it was too dark to see the horse pen, but he could hear a hoof stamp against the mud and the vibrating lips as they blew out air. On his way to the bedroom, he noticed the mobile was hanging up again. He took it down and tossed it in the far corner, where Marla would have to climb over boxes to reach it.

The sound of the television came from the bedroom, but he shut the bathroom door and dug through the cabinet until he found white pills in bubble foil. He’d asked her a couple of years ago to get her tubes tied, but she refused, insisting that the pills were effective enough. So he let it go. But now, the stuff she’d been doing-last week she spent all day babysitting for some woman they didn’t even know, and now this mobile-made him nervous. On the daily pills, the foil was popped and empty all the way to Thursday. He thought. It was Thursday. That satisfied him momentarily, but then he suspected, without any kind of proof: she could have flushed them.

In the shower, he kept the water near scalding, so the whole room filled with fog. Marla poked her head in.

“I’m going to put the horses to bed,” she said.

“Close the door, I’m losing steam,” Dirk replied.

Once she left, he scrubbed his eyelids. He could feel the bumps from the paint, and the water only washed off some of them. By the time he had dried and crawled under the covers, Marla returned from the horses, shivering, and crawled into bed with him. “Star’s happy from the exercise,” she said. “But I found another sore on Angel, a small one, on a different leg. And now the first one’s even bigger.”

“She’ll be fine,” Dirk said.

“I’m going to call the vet tomorrow.” Marla pulled the blankets up and squirmed to warm up the sheets. Once she was comfortable, she froze, and Dirk could feel her eyes on him. “Why don’t you wear the goggles I bought you?”

Dirk rubbed his eyelids and turned away from her. “Don’t want to.”

“One of these days you’re not going to blink in time and a whole glob of paint’s going to blind you.”

He didn’t reply. Her hand reached across the great divide of the bed to rest on his hip, but after he didn’t move, she withdrew back to her side.


On Friday morning, he woke up early and drove to the ATV rental store. A cute number wearing camouflage pants took payment and insurance waivers from all the splotchy teenagers, and he gave her a “hello” before laying down his blue tarps and rolling up his sleeves to show off the bicep tattoo of the eagle over the cobra that his friend had inked especially for him. He started rolling with an easy rhythm, matching the beat of the pop songs on the radio even though he hated pop songs and would have preferred some heavy metal. He didn’t roll too hard or too fast because he didn’t want more flecks on his eyelids.

After every batch of customers growled off to the dunes on their ATVs, the girl in camouflage used the desk phone to call home. At least that’s what he thought she was doing, because she talked simply, as though to a child. Dirk had been attracted to her, but the baby-talk calls annoyed him. She’d be too much trouble, too much like the last one he’d been involved with, too young. By the time Dirk took a lunch break, she must have called the kid six times, and he escaped her cooing by going outside to watch the black vehicles swarm over the sand like a colony of ants.

When the desk phone rang later that afternoon, the camouflage girl handed it to him. It was Marla.

“I’ve been calling everywhere for you—I didn’t know where you were working.” She paused for breath. “Angel’s sick. Really sick, like she’s going to die. It’s an infection.” She stopped talking abruptly and Dirk realized it was because she was crying without sound. Even over the phone he knew exactly how her face looked-puckered up, her eyes scrunched tightly, the corners of her lips turned down. “Can you come home?” she asked, and he could see her face straighten out just long enough to ask the question and then seize up again.

Dirk gathered his junk. It wasn’t the first time she’d asked him to leave a job to help her, but missing an afternoon of work meant he couldn’t finish the job in time to collect the bonus. Instead, he had to go home and console her over a horse, a stupid horse, but since that horse meant more than most other things in the world, his shoulder should be available for her. Even though she was probably exaggerating the situation. Horse would probably heal by next week. It was just like her to fret about a small thing.

When Dirk arrived, the vet was in the stall with Angel. Marla hovered, strangling a tissue. “What happened?” Dirk asked. Marla laced herself around him, arms and feet, crying. He hugged her tightly, an arm braced against her lower and upper back in the way he knew she liked to be hugged. Marla released but kept an arm touching his. “I tried to lead her around the pen, just to get her blood flowing, but then she stumbled and it took her ten minutes to get up.”

“Are you all right?”

“Of course not.” She dragged the tissue across her face to collect the mucus and tears. “Do you think it was my fault, for leading her around rather than keeping her still?”

“No, of course it wasn’t your fault. No.” But after he said it, he wondered whether it was.

The vet returned a medical instrument to his box and stood. “I’m going to give you some antibiotics,” he said. “But the infection’s serious and I think these sores”—he pointed with a pen towards the legs—“are going to keep developing. She could get better, maybe recover in the next few weeks, or she could”—he lifted his hands, palms up.

“What else can you do to fix her?” Marla asked in a hurried voice. “We’ll pay anything if you can fix her, anything.”

The vet paused. “You said she’s 28, right? She’s dying from old age, not just these sores. Either she bucks up, or it takes her down.”

Long after the vet left, Marla remained with the horses. Dirk cycled through television channels. When he went to the kitchen to grab another beer, he saw her brushing Angel in the dusk light, her mouth moving as though talking. She didn’t come in until long after that, not until after he’d eaten some leftovers from the fridge and had a few more drinks and run out of television to pretend he was watching. When she did come in, she went straight to the bedroom. After a few minutes he followed her. She was lying on her side in the middle of the bed with her hands folded under her head, and when he slipped under the covers his body slid into contact with her warm skin, bare all over. She turned on him as soon as they touched, as if it was a signal, and began to kiss him ferociously.

He could feel her body radiate worry, from her stomach and heart to his, and all the noises she made that usually seemed happy were cut with fear. But instead of the worry making her lethargic, it made her move with intensity, a type of energy that he hadn’t seen in years, not since they were in their late-twenties out in his Studebaker near the cliffs. He held back, though. At the pause in their kissing, the transition point where one of them usually rolled on top, he hesitated.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m just tired,” he lied. The heat went out of her body. She showed him her back. He returned the gesture. As he fell asleep, he felt guilty because he knew he hadn’t given her what she needed.


As he was eating breakfast franks on Saturday morning, she came out with eyes at half-mast and headed for the horses, the whiff of horseshit breezing in as she opened the door. After he’d finished breakfast and rammed extra clothes into a black duffel bag, she came back in and hugged him from behind, laying her cheek against his spine. “Don’t go,” she said.

“How’s the horse?” he asked.

She didn’t even get angry with him for not saying her name. “She’s not any better,” she said. She made her arms a straightjacket around him. “Stay.”

“I can’t let all the boys down,” he said, and broke away from her. “I’m driving the van.”

“Let Chuck drive it.” Bags underlined her eyes.

“I’ve been planning this for months. I’m not ditching it all now.” He said it in his strong voice and watched her surrender in the slight buckle at her knees, the stomach sag, the face drop. She crawled back under the covers and didn’t say goodbye as he left.

After three-and-a-half hours of driving, during which the three guys and Chuck drank in the back of the van and Dirk reminded them to keep it below the windows in case of cops, they started winding through Portland’s streets to the auditorium. They parked in the big lot, filled with men scalping tickets and women who looked like hookers but who might have been ex-groupies that were now girlfriends of the band members. While in line, Dirk started drinking too, to release steering wheel tension. There were a lot of tattoos, he noticed, on necks and arms and legs, some of them as elaborate as the original one on his arm, but they all looked faded and stretched on over-tanned skin.

In the auditorium, the stage was set at neck level and there weren’t any seats, just a large open space as if for a high school dance. Within a half hour the room was packed with middle-aged men reeking of sweat. It was comforting, in a way, because everyone smelled the same. The guy beside Dirk, wearing a mustache with ends that trailed down past his chin like vines, kept on shouting, “Start the Throat” using his hands as a megaphone, which gave Dirk the feeling of déjà vu.

The lights died and the slow opening thrums by the bass player from Thrasher Throat vibrated his rib cage. Off the platform of that noise, all the hell of their opening song broke through the monitors, a familiar song that he’d first heard in his late teens, with screaming vocals and wicked guitar riffs. Men were waving, a few limber ones could actually jump, and people seemed to be shouting, judging by the shape of their mouths.

He tried to be excited, he tried. He wanted the music to invade his veins like it had so many times before, he wanted to let the lyrics—In the dirty garden of your mind / You keep a wicked secret hidden there—wash over him, but he felt deaf. It wasn’t the music that was different. It was the feeling that he didn’t belong. He felt too old for this. Even being in the mass of bodies made him feel foreign, so he fought through the tangle of arms and shoulders to the back.

Not until midway through the set did Dirk see the man, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt for Midnight Screamer. The man, a bit older than Dirk, was talking to someone who didn’t seem to be listening. As the man walked by, the light from the bar illuminated the swirl of faded colors on his arm: the arching neck of the cobra, the spread eagle wings. It was Dirk’s tattoo. There were many popular versions of the two animals coiled around each other, but none like this. He pushed off to ask the man where he had gotten it, how he had stolen his one-of-a-kind tattoo, but lost him in the dark garden of heads.

Dirk didn’t find the man until he looked up at the stage. The man with his tattoo had climbed up next to the guitarist, wielding cans in both hands, and was trying to bang his head but couldn’t do it fast enough to keep up with the beat. He looked like a rag doll without rhythm. After a few measures, two security guards came up and grappled with him, but the man bent over in resistance and went limp. As the guards hooked him under his armpits, Dirk noticed the blooming stain at the man’s crotch—a dark circle the size of a coaster, slowly expanding—and he felt embarrassed for the man, too tanked to be ashamed. Security dragged the man offstage, his toes trailing on the wood floor, both drinks spilling exit trails.

Five minutes later the man tore out from backstage and started raging across the back of the auditorium. Dirk caught only fragments, but noticed the stain on the front of the man’s pants had grown, and his T-shirt was ripped at the collar. At first, a few people watched him, curious, but then the entertainment ran low, and everyone turned, forcing him to rant to a line of backs. The stained man pushed a tall man. The tall man punched him in the face. There was a flurry of limbs, of wild punches and staggering legs, until the two sank to the floor. The crowd pressed in, blocking Dirk’s view. Which was fine. He couldn’t stomach any more of a washed up man making such a display.

Dirk remembered that his father had said—when he couldn’t go out to a music festival—that Dirk was a fucking ball and chain, and Dirk had never forgotten how ashamed he felt, to be that weight. But Dirk never looked at the benefits of a ball and chain. To keep him from ending up like this guy, toasted and soiled and isolated. To keep him from humiliating himself at a concert attended by men who wanted to stay adolescents rather than raise adolescents. As the security guards’ heads bobbed through the crowd, Dirk slipped out the doors into the fog of cigarette smoke and lingered outside with the smokers, listening to their advice about killing weeds by dumping car oil on them. The music sounded muted, as if it were at the comfortable distance of a few blocks away.

On the trip home, the men were quiet, drowsy, drunk. After Dirk dropped them off, he drove the empty streets to his house. He started toward the front door, but changed course for the pen, straining through the darkness to see the bars, the shed. As he leaned on the railing, abrasive from the rust, he realized the place smelled like home, although it was sad that the smell of home included shit. With the help of starlight, he could make out Blacky, and next to her, the slope to the snout of a horse head—Angel—holding statue still. Though she was standing up, he knew then that she wouldnt make it. Some kind of intuition. It might take another week or a month, but she was going out. She was old, with decades of pampering from Marla, and she’d probably get a headstone in a pet cemetery rather than shipped to the glue factory. She had nothing to whinny about. Marla had it worse.

Inside the house, he left the lights off and navigated by the glow pouring through the windows. In the refrigerator, he noticed a brown lunch bag. Marla had made it for him, he realized, because she knew he had to finish up that painting job tomorrow. It was just like her to apologize with a gift even when she hadn’t done anything wrong. When he looked inside to check on the type of sandwich, riding on the bagged bread were the goggles. Using his index fingers, he brushed over both his eyelids. They felt smooth.

Something glinted as he passed the office. The mobile, reflecting some of the back porch light. It was a sitting on the desk, a halfway point between the corner and hanging up. He watched the pieces twist, powered by some current moving through the house. On impulse he reached out and gave a half twist to the dial that started the music: tinny, tinkling music, one note at a time like a music box. It was a lullaby, one that sounded familiar to him from his childhood, but he couldn’t place the words or title. A beautiful tune, a reminder of being young. He hummed a few measures before the music slowed and died. With the song still playing in his head, he walked down the dim hallway towards the bedroom.

John Matthew Fox writes in Los Angeles. He won the 2010 Third Coast Fiction Contest, and received his graduate degrees in creative writing from the University of Southern California and New York University. He’s published in Adirondack Review, Los Angeles Review, Tampa Review, and Pedestal Magazine, and is currently finishing a linked short story collection about Protestant missionaries.

“In my childhood, growing up in the High Desert of California, my porch was screened by a thicket of gardenias. They were overpoweringly sweet—you could smell them from across the yard—and they were my mother’s favorites. Though I haven’t had the joy of rocking on a porch for more than a decade, I recently put a bid on a house with a wrap-around porch with white banisters. It’s gorgeous. I’m already eyeing rocking chairs at thrift stores. There’s only one addendum that would make the porch perfect-a row, at the base, of gardenias.”


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