July 21, 2010

The Lonehorseman

By Ernest © 2010

The extremely pregnant woman did a shot of Jagermeister, and then started slowly sliding off her barstool. The bartender ran around the corner of the bar and caught her just before she hit the ground. That’s a sound I was glad I didn't have to hear. The sickening thud of a drunk pregnant woman hitting the floor. What kind of place was this? What alternate dimension had I entered? I looked around the bar from the slightly flickering neon Schlitz sign, to the jukebox blaring Charlie Daniels, and finally to my friends playing darts in the corner. They were either oblivious to the drunk pregnant woman, or they were so used to the sight that it didn’t even register. I was hoping for the former. And to think, two hours earlier I had been comfortably at home in another town.

Few words in the English language can bring more excitement and anticipation to the heart of a twenty year old than “road trip.” Those two fateful words had been shouted in my living room earlier that day after my pal John got off the phone with our mutual friend Carolyn. It was summer break, and we were all college buddies. Carolyn was home in Burlington , Wisconsin , and had called to invite us down for an impromptu party and dorm floor reunion. We were still up in Madison , and decided to make the hour and a half trip south. How could we pass up the opportunity to black out in a different location? We made record time flying down I-39 towards Carolyn's, and decided to stop into a weathered roadside bar at the edge of town to continue drinking (we had started the minute John hung up the phone).

Inside the bar is where we found the scene with the pregnant woman unfolding. This was 1988, and I guess they hadn’t gotten the memo in southern Wisco that alcohol and fetuses are a bad mix. We were doing copious shots of the newly discovered Jagermeister ourselves, and the pregnant woman kept asking us to buy her a shot, but by then she had been cut off by the bartender. Rules are rules, and when you and your unborn baby have had enough to drink, then that’s that. The bartender would serve you until you fell over, but he’d catch you on the way down. A true humanitarian.

I was beginning to think I had passed through a portal to a dark world, but it might have just been the booze and the three joints we smoked on the road. Eventually we left the watering hole from hell, and the battered wooden door slowly closed behind us, muffling the shouts of protest from the pregnant woman inside. I’ve always wondered what might have become of her unborn child. He or she would be around twenty-two by now, probably running the Tilt-o-Whirl at some fair, or mopping the floor of some penitentiary. Kinda tough to start life already behind the eight ball like that. It reminded me of the first chapter of every serial killer’s bio that I’ve ever read.

We headed out into the setting sun, which burned our dark bar adjusted eyes. We drove down a series of dirt roads with the red and dreamsicle colored sunset shining through the endless fields and barbed wire fences. And cows. Lots and lots of cows. The sulfurous stench of ozone destroying methane hung in the air. We pulled into our friend Carolyn’s family’s horse ranch just as the sun finally set. She greeted us on the huge porch with a smile and a beer. People had arrived from all over for the gathering, and it was starting to look like it was going to be a serious party.

After the typical reunion hugs, keg problems solved, and emergency booze runs, everyone was settling into a pleasantly hammered buzz. It was time to explore the ranch a little. We headed down to the stables with some drinks for us, and carrots for the horses. I didn’t have to travel far before I met a new friend. Everyone else headed to the main stable, but I was drawn to an old horse in the side stable who seemed to have a devilishly bemused look on his long face. He greedily accepted my carrot offering, appreciatively bouncing his head up and down quickly the way only a horse can. When the carrots ran out, he decided to try my arm as a snack. This was the first time I had ever been up close and personal with a horse, and I was amazed at the strength of his jaws. I actually panicked a little as he clamped down on my arm and pulled me back and forth with ease. After I retrieved my arm, we came to a peaceable understanding and I stood there petting him, having one of those incredible moments of youthful drunken bliss when everything is optimism and the universe seems to make sense.

Carolyn came by on her way to catch up with everybody else and was surprised at my choice of friends.

“He’s a grouch.” She said. “He doesn’t usually like anybody.”

I took it as a compliment, said my goodbyes to him, and then followed her to the main stable.

Many of the horses had gotten loose in the field behind the stables. It was pitch black by now, and sometimes all you could hear was the muffled thundering of hooves on dirt and large blurry images moving around us in the dark. A mixture of fear and excitement had overcome me. Carolyn was trying to round up the horses when one of her neighbors showed up even drunker than we were. He was a charming fellow who seemed to think “fuck” was simultaneously a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. I think he managed to utter a couple of long sentences using only that one word. After a few minutes of erudite conversation, he insisted that it was time for him to ride one of the horses bareback. Carolyn, and a majority of the horses, seemed to think that this was a bad idea, but he set down his Coors Light and found a horse that slowed down just enough for him to run and hop on. He was lying on his stomach on the horse’s back, with his legs hanging off the horse sideways. As he whooped and hollered, the horse had second thoughts about this scenario. He bolted towards the dark outline of the only tree in the pasture, and when he got to it, he took a sharp left. We could see the silhouette of the drunken neighbor flying off the horse with his feet extended straight up, and his head a few feet above the ground pointing down. Then we heard the shattering impact of human body meeting tree trunk. Followed by silence. Followed by groans. We ran over to him with a flashlight just as he was getting to his feet. Personally, I was surprised that he was remotely alive. The horse must have been going close to twenty miles an hour just before his passenger went airborne. Somebody shined a flashlight on the neighbor’s face. I had never seen so much blood. He was making a guttural wailing noise, and I couldn’t tell where his nose was, or if it was even still there. Many of his teeth were missing, but I couldn’t remember if he had been like that pre-accident. After all, he was wearing overalls with no shirt, and missing teeth seem to go hand in hand with that look. He appeared to be angry about the way things had turned out, and was blaming the horse and Carolyn. He headed back to his place and we chuckled as his curses slowly faded into the night.

We went back to the house and had our nightcaps. I vaguely remember drinking with people on the porch until everyone started passing out one by one on the living room floor. As I succumbed to sleep I prepared to dream the dreams of purgatory deep in America's heartland.

Ernest was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1980s. Everything after that is a little blurry. He regrets nothing. You can find his writing in a blog called Throwin' Rocks.

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