Mrs Pall-Meyer, short-waisted, stooped, breasts shrunk to teardrops, Mrs Pall-Meyer was a dirty old woman, no matter she was rich. What good had money done her? She was traveling alone. They were both, Arden Fawn and Mrs Pall-Meyer, traveling alone, but Mrs Pall-Meyer had been at the ranch for over a month and would ride on long after Arden went home: Monday, next week, the first of April, home to an airbrushed county Arden once thought harmless.
Arden yanked at her reins and brought Doc into line while the old woman, Mrs Pall-Meyer, held back her horse and put even more space between them. Mrs Pall-Meyer was as friendless as Arden; no one would miss them.
They rode to the dried-out creek bed that devolved to a trail of ashy sand, charred wood, and trash not pictured in the ranch brochure – a strip of fender, a Pringles can – the rubbly blight of modern life, no green in sight but dust. At least for a time the sound of the horses was peaceable, but the hard floor of the desert came on with a clap. A wizened spring, the sickly prickly pear and organ pipe cacti were so riddled with holes they might have been targets. Even the paloverde trees looked leached. They rode along a level path, fording dried-out riverbeds of chalky stones – pale landscape, white sun. She put on her sunglasses and the view, honeyed, was not so hard on the spirit, but her back still hurt; it felt as if she were tightening a belt of barbed wire around her waist – God almighty, it hurt, and the ride had hardly begun. Arden rode apart not so much by choice as that it happened. Terrain had nothing to do with it. Her horse was slow and she was heavy.
Mrs Pall-Meyer, even farther behind, was a stick and rode as she liked. Now she went at a gentle pace and comfortable distance, for which Arden was grateful. In this way, far enough apart from all of the others, Arden could play on in her pioneering dream of self-sufficiency, even though her favorite part of the ride was when she was off the horse and walking to the ranch. Her legs felt used and wide apart then, and her walk was more a straddle.
‘Kick him!’ Mrs Pall-Meyer cried. The old woman threatened to pass. They had fallen too far behind.
Arden’s horse started to lope then lapsed into a rough trot stopped by the earthy rump of the dentist’s enormous horse.
‘Oh, hoh, my,’ Arden moaned. Knocked against the saddle horn, her pubic bone stung and she pressed her hand between her legs: she felt her own heat and heard Mrs Pall-Meyer spit. Mrs Pall-Meyer had paused, as had all the riders, at the incline.
‘How long have you been riding?’ Mrs Pall-Meyer asked.
‘Oh,’ Arden, said, shifting in the saddle, ‘all my life, but not a lot.’
Mrs Pall-Meyer, the name suggesting a hyphenated importance, merely snorted and rode ahead.
The trail turned narrower, rougher, stonier although the redheaded wrangler – Red, for his hair – might have been asleep, so little did the ride’s danger impress him. How many times had he led folks up this route?
‘Over five thousand acres gives a guy a lot of different ways to go,’ he answered. ‘You’d be surprised.’
Mrs Pall-Meyer said, ‘If I had something to ride on.’ In this way, she simply went on talking to herself, making tough, irritated pickax sounds with words like crap, drink, think. For all the advantages she must have had, Mrs Pall-Meyer was a coarse woman. She had made herself known in the morning, talking at the young Asbach boy, Ben, ‘My friends are dead. My sister is demented. I’m the last of my line, but I bet you’ve got a lot of friends.’ Oh, the nuisance of them all was what the old woman meant to say in her supercilious voice.
Arden had looked on at how Mrs Pall-Meyer befuddled the boy and made him blush. Ben Asbach of the Asbachs – ‘There are eight of us here,’ said the matriarch merrily. A granddaughter – slight as straw – called Mrs Asbach Nana.
What names, if any, had others at the ranch assigned her? – Arden, Arden Fawn. Was she the fat lady, the dull lady, the shy lady – hair color as uncertain as her age? Arden had a pretty face, of this much she was certain, which made it all the sadder, the weight. She hoped for her horse’s sake she would soon reach the summit.
There, Red said they could get off their horses and stretch their legs. But Arden had no intention of stretching her legs. If she got off her horse, she would never get on again. Besides, she could see just as well from on top of her horse, and her back wouldn’t hurt if Doc held still. The riding itself, walking, walking especially and however precariously, was easiest on her back. No loping, please! They rode up the mountain, slowly and close, and her thoughts were the same and body-centered until they all stopped at the summit. The sturdy banker loudly huffed off his horse and landed hard; his wife tiptoed lightly – all grace. And Arden?
‘You sure?’ Red asked, ready to help. ‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘No, I’ll stay on.’
So Red adjusted her saddle, pulled it more to his side, asked after Doc.
‘He’s a good boy,’ Arden said and wondered was Red a good boy or did he fuck sheep? Arden liked to appall herself with her own appalling thoughts. She liked a little fright in the middle of small exchanges – the selfmanufactured fright from thinking she was overheard. The dentist’s wife, who rode near and behind Red, asked him about the drought with an informed interest in its effects on the region’s wildlife.
Arden regarded the dentist’s wife, talking about water tables. Maybe in some states this was called flirting but the pity of it: a late-life romance as brief as a paper match, a piff of heat but no flame really, a glow quickly extinguished.
The dentist himself winked at Arden. ‘Not going to get off and stretch your legs?’ he asked.
‘Never. I couldn’t. How would I get on again?’ The dentist, smiling, said, ‘There’s lots of ways.’
The dentist was a small man darkly outlined by his specialty, a dentist for expensive and serious procedures to do with reconstruction – think of the bright pan with its sharp slender instruments – she did and was afraid of what this dentist would do inside her mouth. His jeans looked new and his shirt was very white, unwrinkled, snap-buttons, western. She watched him move to a higher point and a different perspective.
Oh, hell, strike the match of romance, who cares if it’s short? Why else had she come to the Double-D? Should she say the weather, the birdlife, the desert in bloom? No one had mentioned a drought. Scant birdlife this season, no color, but hovering just behind Arden was Mrs Pall-Meyer. Mrs Pall-Meyer, an imperious crone with a pointy face that jabbed, Mrs Pall-Meyer stood for something, but for what? Oh, the obvious, death or the future.
There, leaning against a rock and eating ranch granola was the little Asbach girl, rapt with her story’s unspooling. Her lips moved and she smiled to herself, frowned, pouted, then smiled again. Arden guessed she was ten or eleven, a cozy year, fifth grade, but what was her story about? What could she be saying?
Movement now. The others in the group were getting on their horses again. Only Mrs Pall-Meyer did not. She was protesting about her horse.
‘Want some help?’ Red asked.
‘What do you think?’ Mrs Pall-Meyer, with one foot in Red’s hands, said, ‘I hate having to ride a dull horse.’ She tipped a little trying to look at Red as she talked, unsteady, so that he lifted her until she swung her crooked body over the beast she dismissed as a plodder. She didn’t say thank you, just tocked in the saddle to make herself comfortable. It occurred to Arden that Mrs Pall-Meyer might be drunk.
Red took the lead and the party stayed together, the horses picked their way, butt-close, along a ledge. Steep, narrow, white, the ledge was dramatic and Arden held her breath. No one spoke; quiet but for the clocking noise of the horses, their gassy sighs and shivers. Stones popped and the trail noise sounded serious – just as in the cowboy movies: after the shoot-out comes the slow descent, hints of danger and exhaustion. The palomino stumbled and some of the ledge fell away.
‘We are going down, aren’t we?’ Arden asked, anxious.
Mrs Pall-Meyer snorted.
Okay, the question was stupid but the riding was more rocking from side to side than moving forward. Lean back had been the instruction for going downhill, and dutifully Arden did – had – even though the small of her back ached and she was afraid of her horse.
The old woman, suddenly seeming close, sneered, ‘He knows what he’s doing.’
‘I hope so.’
‘You’ve really no business on this ride.’
‘I don’t,’ Arden said. ‘I don’t know,’ she began but she didn’t want to turn around to address the old woman, riding last again. She was tearful enough as it was – her back ached – and to see Mrs Pall-Meyer’s disdain would surely make her cry. She said no more and the repetitive sound of striking hooves stupefied her and when she woke the trail had begun to level off to a more inviting path, soft, quiet, broad. She kicked Doc into a bumpy trot that didn’t last long though it put more space between her and Mrs Pall-Meyer, Mrs Pall-Meyer now far behind until Red shouted out: ‘ Mrs Pall-Meyer!’
Why did he?
But Mrs Pall-Meyer didn’t respond.
‘What can I . . .’ from Red, inconclusive, and so through fluff adrift they rode in a meditative quiet. The banker had spread his life around miles ago. And Red wasn’t much of a talker. Now the stables were in sight. There was the pasture where the ranch horses socialized; there, the barn, the tack room, the ring. The ranch, on a hill, Arden couldn’t see any part of, but the corral was miraculously close.
She barely heard Red say ‘Shit!’ before he jerked his horse around and rode full out to where Mrs PallMeyer was turned upside down. Her foot, twisted, was caught in the stirrup; most of her lay on the ground. Her horse stood still, unmoved by crisis. What sound was this that Mrs Pall-Meyer was making, but it was familiar.
A small truck, its trunk down, banged alongside the fence, stopped at the gate, and another wrangler from another direction came out to herd Arden’s group into the corral. The banker frisked home, and the dentist’s wife and the dentist followed. The Asbachs, grandmother and granddaughter, were already dismounting. ‘Don’t look,’ the grandmother was saying. Arden saw the fluid ten-year shape slide off her horse and canter on her own once her boots hit the ground. Turn away, little girl, turn away from the future, and she did.
Photograph © clare_and_ben
The above is taken from Pure Hollywood by Christine Schutt, published by And Other Stories. Order your copy here.