Home > The Language of Hoofbeats

The Language of Hoofbeats
Catherine Ryan Hyde

1. Jackie

We were more than halfway to this new town whose name I’d forgotten again, and something was brewing in the back of the van. Not with the kids. With the pets. Given the two choices, we were probably getting off easy.

First I tried ignoring it, but there was a clear escalation of minor hostilities involved. The cats were all tucked away in individual carriers, but the dogs were loose, and carriers would not stop Peppy, the youngest dog, from harassing cats. Nothing would. Except maybe a county’s worth of distance.

I looked over at Paula in the driver’s seat. Her small features and fine, straight nose in profile. She was staring at the road ahead and didn’t seem to notice. Maybe she was lost in thought. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

I looked over my shoulder at the kids.

“Quinn,” I said. “See if you can stop Peppy from picking on the cats.”

Before he could leap into action—and with Quinn, that would not be much of a time lag—Paula said, “He shouldn’t take off his seat belt while we’re moving.”

I have to admit this: it filled me with a sense of comfort to know that Paula was mentally here in the van with us after all. That we were still within her scope of conscious awareness.

“Peppy,” Quinn barked, and it was funny to me, the way that tiny-for-his-age eight-year-old tried to make his voice sound authoritative. But, of course, I didn’t hurt his feelings by saying so. “Come! Now!”

Peppy leaped onto Quinn’s lap, and the van fell blissfully silent. Quinn wrapped his arms tightly around the little troublemaking beagle mix and slipped a finger under his collar for good measure.

“Good job, Quinn,” I said.

“Thanks, J-Mom,” he said back.

The girl, Star, withered me with one of those classic teenage death-ray stares of disgust. Armando never stopped looking out the window. He looked intense, maybe even more so than usual. Possibly over the line into distressed. But with Mando it was hard to tell.

I sat forward in my seat again, feeling a sense of relief at leaving the problems in the van behind me . . . well, literally behind me. If only for a moment.

“How much longer?” I asked Paula. “We must be getting close.”

“I’m not sure. Look at the map.”

I plowed through the glove compartment and found the map. Unfolded it. But I’d forgotten the name of the little town again. As I think I might have mentioned. So I used my finger to search in a broad radius east of the Bay Area, hoping to stumble on it and be reminded. It didn’t work.

“What’s the name of this damn place again?”

Paula’s brow furrowed, but she said nothing.

“Sorry. I mean, this place. This very nice place.”

“I swear you have a mental block.”

“Possibly. But I’ll get over it. Can you please just remind me?”

“Easley. As in, ‘We could Easley be happy there.’ ”

“As in, ‘We could just as Easley live someplace else.’ ”

I didn’t look up from my map when I said it. Coward that I am. I didn’t bother to look over to see if Paula was miffed. It pretty well went without saying that she was. Or maybe “hurt” would be a more honest way to say it.

“Sorry,” I said. For about the tenth time in as many days. “At least I can’t forget it again. Now that I’ve so memorably used it in a sentence.”

I found the dreaded town of Easley on the map. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “Holy crap, that’s a long way.” Not that I didn’t know where it was. Not that I hadn’t driven there. Once. But it hit me all over again, in a different way. Far more real.

“From where?” Paula asked.

“I’m not following.”

“A long way from where?”

“From where we live. Lived.”

“Right. I know. But the point I’m trying to make is that we don’t live there now. So maybe you can reset your odometer. The one inside your head. So you’re not measuring distances from a place that’s not even relevant anymore.”

I fell silent.

I’d like to claim I was doing the suggested internal work. I wasn’t. I was bathing in a moment of grief. It had never occurred to me, before that moment, that Napa County was no longer relevant.

We stood in the cavernous living room of our new rental home. The floors were hardwood; the walls, wood-paneled; the massive fireplace, stone. Words echoed. The kids and pets were elsewhere, checking out the new digs. The place was empty except for Paula, who I sensed was about to leave as well. She had a veterinary practice to tend to. Not that it wouldn’t wait a few minutes. But I knew her. She wanted to be there. She wanted the discovery of something new.

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