Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Fork in the Road

Until eighth grade, my brother Jimmy and I hung out together: building forts, camping in the backyard, riding mini-bikes, catching frogs and fish. I was bossy; he was mean. We got in trouble for bickering, but I still tagged along with him and his friend Tim to go fishing or play football in the field behind our house. 

After dark we played a game of reverse hide and go seek where the seekers climbed in with the person who was hiding until the last person, wandering the neighborhood alone, stumbled upon a writhing pile of kids who launched themselves from the hiding spot, screaming, “Bloody Murder!” Everyone ran until someone was tagged. 

That summer, I got a job cleaning kennels at Blue Cross Veterinary Clinic. 

I mixed fifty-gallon garbage cans of dry kibble with #10 cans of wet food, and then served the mixed glop to the dogs; filled the water and food bowls, and cleaned the litter boxes for the cats. On some occasions, I assisted the doctor in surgery, handing him tools while a cat lay stretched out on its back, each limb tied to a corner of the stainless steel table.

My favorite job occurred each spring when people brought in baby deer when the doe had been hit by a car. We had a half dozen spotted fawns in a cyclone fence kennel out back. I heated formula, poured it into baby bottles, then held a bottle in each hand as the fawns sucked vigorously two at time. The waiting fawns rose up on spindly hind legs, trying to nudge those eating away from the bottles.

I saved my earnings to buy a two-year old buckskin filly named Star Catcher. I was mesmerized by the way her coat shone in the sunlight like a copper penny. 

I spent my free time doing homework, working, or walking to the little pasture and barn I rented for $5 per month. Although they didn’t have much money, my parents gave me a bankbook with an open loan—the balance was usually around $125 dollars—to pay for hay, feed, and veterinary costs. They wrote the balance off a time or two as a Christmas or birthday gift, but mostly I worked to pay the costs associated with having a horse: riding lessons, horse shows, going to the county fair.

I often babysat my little sister Charlene. By the time she was three, I’d prop her on the banana seat of my pink Schwinn and pedal us to the barn. I knew almost nothing about training horses, but I read everything I could get my hands on at the county bookmobile that parked in our neighborhood every other week.

The now defunct bookmobile was a lifeline to me
as a teenage reader since no library was near.
(Photo by Jim Culp.)


Star Catcher’s eager disposition and my inexperience were a good combination. She came running from the field, nickering when I called her name, no oats or grain, happy to see me. Charlene would play on the bales of hay or pick flowers in the field while I lunged Star until her response to voice control was impeccable. Even without a halter or lead rope, she would back or sidestep with a verbal command.

I tapped beside her jaw and she would lower her head so I could lean across her neck, then tapped again, and she lifted my lean eighty pounds to slide from her neck to her back. I lay back on her, my belly skyward, head on her rump, watching the clouds, feeling her move under me as she grazed. When she was safe to ride with a bridle in the field, I began taking her on neighborhood roads.

On hot days, my friends and I rode our horses five miles down the old highway to the river. When we arrived, I’d strip Star’s saddle and blanket, climb back on, and swim her out into the cold mountain water until I was waist deep on her back, only her head and neck visible, black tail snaking out behind us like inky kelp. Star Catcher replaced Jimmy as my constant companion. 

The summer after eighth grade, I started going with a boy next door. Kyle had the broad shoulders of a swimmer. He wore square black glasses perched on his slender nose, framed by blue eyes and blond hair. His ruddy lips seemed to mark high school trumpet players. He was always busy with jazz and marching band, but he made time for me.

That cinched it. Between a horse, a job, and a boy, there was no time in my life for my brother. By then, Jimmy was smoking. Within a short time, he was using drugs. I hardly noticed; he was no longer in my field of vision, not even on the periphery. I didn’t feel the loss until years later.

If Jimmy missed me, he never said. He was a prime example of Newton’s first law: he was headed for trouble and would continue at the same velocity and direction until he crashed.


  1. I didn't see it coming. Well done. Sorry that your relationship with your brother became what it did. Sometimes we have to move on. I enjoyed your story and could visualize it all. Thanks.

  2. Your memories with Star are lovely and visual. About your brother -- I read a quote once about how people who have plans and dreams don't engage in destructive behaviour. I'm glad you had Star to keep you focused.

  3. The interactions with Star are so lovely and sandwiched between the difficult relationship with your brother make the horse stories that much more precious and poignant.

  4. I didn't see it coming either! I have an older brother and was instantly drawn to your descriptions of building forts and tagging along. And wow, did the ending surprise me :) I loved the read.

  5. Beautifully written. I love the juxtaposition of how your life opened up with the vet clinic and Star - I can so feel myself lying on her back looking at the clouds - and then abruptly, how your brother's life closed in while you barely noticed. Loved reading this.

  6. Deb, I love your beautiful details. I could *see* you, your horse, your little sister, the setting. The revelation at the end is particularly powerful--the separation from your brother that you didn't feel until later. The entire post brings us to that point. Nicely done!

  7. I was so impressed by your ambition and your love for horses that drove you to find a way to afford one. How sad for Jimmy that he took a different road. I hope he came around and found his way back?

  8. Loved this piece as well. It really took you on a journey. I felt like you were showing me this, then that, and I too was distracted by all the stuff of your life and hardly noticed that the text didn't even mention your brother anymore. Fabulous.

  9. The ending is so powerful. I remember going to horse shows when i was little. They always raffled off a horse and I hoped we would win but it would depend on where you were sitting. We never won and I've no doubt my mother was hugely relieved. The cost of keeping a horse in Manhattan . . . I can't even imagine. But she never let me believe having a horse would be a problem.

  10. Thanks for the comments. Satia, it was wonderful of your mom to let you believe.


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