As I mixed the egg yolk into my last bit of hash browns, I noticed something. There were three bullet holes right there in the wall by our table. I thought I saw one of the bullets still lodged in there under the coat of paint somebody had slapped on in an effort to hide them. A horse picture was hung there, too, but it wasn’t big enough to cover all the damage. Like the country stars’ photos, this picture was still wearing the dime store frame it had come in.
I’ve always loved horses and horse art, even the paint by number ones. This one had wild mustangs running through the canyon with dust billowing behind them. I thought about those trail rides we used to go on at the Double Mountain. The guests always had first pick of the horses to ride. My favorite was Firefly, a sorrel quarter horse mare who was always the one everybody wanted to ride. She was the favorite. It had to practically be storming or something for one of the workers to get to ride her. I only rode Firefly twice the whole summer, but it made a mark on me. She was special.
She had a white long star on her forehead that really didn’t look like a star. I thought she was marked by the gods. Her mane and tail were a color they called strawberry blonde and they flowed off her like a fashion scarf. I had never seen a more beautiful horse than Firefly in a photograph or in a painting.
There was another horse nobody liked to ride. His name was Nitro. If I went on a trail ride during the afternoon break, Nitro and I would always wind up a pair. It didn’t matter what time I got there, whether the guests were just picking out their horses, mounting up or already heading out on the trail, I would always end up riding Nitro. It was him and me by default.
He was a bay with a black tail and mane. His legs were too short for his body, but that didn’t slow Nitro down. Not one bit. In fact, no matter where he was or how accomplished the rider, Nitro would bolt to the head of the pack. It never failed. And he would just keep on going. He had his own way of doing things and wasn’t going to have it any other way. He just had to be the first one, on the trail and in life itself whether or not anybody else was behind him. It was his nature. He wasn’t a mean horse, but he was what struck me as an independent soul. He had to be out front of everything. He wasn’t a leader, but he sure wasn’t any follower, either. Even when we were the only two out there on the trail, the other riders long behind us and the dust gyred up like big brown clouds.
It made me sad to remember Nitro. I’d give anything right now to be back riding him in those old Texas hills. Life was sure filled with hard places and no do-overs. Maybe that was part of growing up, figuring out how to try and get it right the first time. Sure didn’t seem like you were ever offered a second chance. Sometimes you only get one shot at things so maybe you’ve got to just bust on through the whole thing like Nitro did. I think if I ever got back to the Double Mountain, I’d pick Nitro to ride. Even if Firefly was free for the asking, I’d ride Nitro.
I learned things about myself from animals I wouldn’t have otherwise known, but, I had to be still and listen. It was like the person who gets rid of their pet and then keeps on blaming everything that happened on the animal. What they’re really doing is reconstituting their own guilt. Over and over. Every time you run into them, they tell you the story again. How they had to give up the family dog or cat. The bad habits will get worse and worse with each telling until finally, they’re talking about a real monster. They ask how could anyone live with such a terrible pet like that? They want you to feel sorry for them, but I always felt bad for the dog or cat. A little part of me deep inside would cross that person off my list and not want anything to do with them after that.
Ed was standing there at the table with the check. “Did ya’ll want anything else today. I guess it’s night, now.”
I started going through my purse. “No sir. No, wait a minute. Could I get a bowl of that chili to go?” I hadn’t thought about Willie’s dinner with all the goings on.
“Hon, is she ok? Is that your mama?”
Grace was sitting there not doing much of anything, but at least she’d eaten her eggs.
“Oh, yeah. Thank you. She’s ok. She’s just had a rough day. That’s all it is.”
He took the money and looked at me knowingly. It was another one of those looks like I got from people, but I didn’t mind it so much from Ed. I figured this probably wasn’t the first time he’d had a customer who’d hit an unlucky spell seeing as the diner was so close to the city jail.
“Be careful,” was all he said.
When we started for home, I let myself think about Nitro again. It made me feel better, but I couldn’t say why. I thought about Grace and I thought about a song somebody sang. It was the Butch Hancock song, ‘If you were a Bluebird.’ I liked it, because it reminded me of Grace. He sings about if the person he’s singing about was a bluebird, she’d be a sad bluebird. To me, the song really caught Grace’s melancholy. She could be sad over nothing it seemed to me.
It was one of those songs that also makes a good poem, because it can be about anyone. Or anything. Tonight, I thought about that song and the part about the hotel. That was Nitro. Butch sings about if the bluebird was a hotel, it would be one of those fine ones. But, if it hit a slow spell, he didn’t think the bluebird could handle it. But, it rhymed so pretty and the verse part is what broke your heart. Nitro.