One of the first things I said when I woke up that morning was, “Ya know, it’s amazing that I’m thirty-six years old and I’ve never broken a bone.” You’d think, being a writer who knows a little something about foreshadowing, I’d know better than to tempt the cruel hands of fate. Alas, I did not, and I was at that time what people in the real world refer to as a horse’s ass. Which brings me to my wife’s birthday.
To celebrate Becky’s most recent trip around the sun, I had leased some horses from a lovely firecracker of a woman named Jane just outside of Kernville, California where my parents have a little place on the river. Becky is an accomplished rider with cardboard boxes — yes, boxes plural — filled with ribbons and trophies from competition horseback riding. As a girl she went to horse camp and wrote her parents a spirited letter, which included this exact quote: “They even let us muck the stalls!” If you’re not a horse person, here is the rough translation of that quote: “Lucky day! There is a god, for we get to clean up horse shit!” So, yeah, my wife knows her way around the corral.
If you don’t know my wife that well, this little story makes no sense at all while at the same time making perfect sense. It makes no sense because Becky’s a girly girl, a former Miss Orange County with a closet full of pink and yellow who is fond of reminding me to be gentle with her because she “bruises easy like a peach,” her words not mine. It makes perfect sense because she’s a walking, talking smile. She wakes up with sunlight shining out of her butt, and it’s rare that you hear anyone say anything negative about her unless it’s to criticize her enthusiasm and happiness as phony, claims which are nearly always repealed once the criticizers realize that, yes, there really are people this lovely in the world. So, ya see, Becky is the kind of person who can even see the bright side of a stall full of horse shit.
That morning, I drove her, our kids, and my mom about twenty miles outside of Kernville to this Jane woman’s house, which is an area I have recorded in my journal as an apt place to bury a body should I ever find myself in a Quentin Tarantino type situation. Still, Jane’s ranch was charming in a knick-knack sort of way. Flooding the yard were antiques and tuffs of fur from a barn cat so big, it seemed that its diet included other cats.
Jane greeted us and immediately set to saddling our horses and pairing us up. She was not much taller than five feet, but her horses obeyed her commands as if she were an eight-foot ogre who had an under-the-table deal with a glue factory. She outfitted my kids, Charlee and Sam, with helmets and plopped each of them onto their own saddled colts. She then offered Becky and me helmets. Becky declined because she’s a pro, and I declined because I’m a moron. She put Becky on a horse, the more wild of the two since Becky knew what she was doing (at least I assumed so based on Becky’s box of ribbons and trophies, I’d never actually seen her ride) and she put me on a large, 1,200-pound horse called Fingers, Fingers because this horse was so reliable you could count on him.
My mom snapped some pics of all of us, and then she bid us adieu as Jane led us out into the wilderness for our ride to “a plateau where we could give it some gas.” This was no corporate operation. These weren’t the kinds of horses who stuck to the trail because they walked the same pathetic loop thirteen times a day while tourists snapped saddle selfies. These horses knew no routine. If you wanted them to turn, you had to turn them. If you wanted them to stop or go, you had to make them stop or go.
And Fingers, to be fair, knew what he was doing. If I squeezed my left leg, he turned right; if I squeezed my right leg, he turned left. A gentle tug on the reins brought him to a stop. A quick but gentle kick and he took off. He was a living, breathing, 1,200-pound remote control.
Our ride to the plateau took us through a dried river bed — soft sand, Joshua trees, and the occasional cactus patch. We had been at it an hour when Jane led us up the bank of the dried river bed. A pot-holed road that looked as if it was paved during The New Deal cut into the bank about halfway up. Jane rode up first, followed by Becky and the kids, with me bringing up the rear. Fingers’ hooves klip-klopped over the 100-year-old asphalt and then he took a quick gallop up the last part of the bank. And this is where it went bad.
Like Christopher Reeves bad.
Fingers’ front hooves suddenly sank into the dirt up to his knees. I can’t be sure, but I think he stepped into a rabbit hole. As we went up the bank, we were at an angle, and I was leaning forward to compensate, but when he sank, I pitched forward and my chest thumped Fingers in the back of the head.
This was when Fingers lost his grip on reality.
He began to buck.
On a hill.
With me on his back.
I respected horses before this, but what happened next pushed the boundaries of my respect. I managed to stay on for two bucks, all the while hearing Jane curse Fingers to steady himself. On the third buck, though, the 1,200-pound beast sent all 220-ish pounds of me airborne. Given that I was about eight feet tall in the saddle, and that we were on an inclined bank, and that Fingers was jumping, I fell from about ten feet up. We were in the soft, dried river bed for ninety-nine percent of the ride, but because I tempted the cruel hands of fate (about never having broken a bone), it made sense that I made my glorious, helmet-less dismount onto the asphalt.
I came to about two minutes later (though it would take the better part of the day for Becky to convince me that I was actually knocked out). When I staggered to my feet, this is what I did and did not see.
- I saw double.
- I did not see Jane. She went after Fingers who had galloped away after bucking me, and Jane figured they would need the horse to haul my dead carcass back to her house as we were out of cell phone range and everyone thought I was dead. Seriously. Which I guess is what you would think when a grown man gets thrown onto his head and doesn’t move for a few minutes.
- I saw Charlee. She stood up on the bank, her face pale and eyes wide.She was the only one who saw what had happened. She saw Fingers Buck. She saw me struggle to stay in the saddle. She saw me fail. She saw me airborne. And she saw me collide with the asphalt. As soon as she heard me speak, the tears came. I’m hoping that she cried out of relief and not out of disappointment, like, “Damn, the old man’s alive. I guess I will have to clean my room when we get home.”
- I did not see reason. I kept trying to tell everyone, “I’m fine, I’m fine. No big deal. Everyone calm down.” This was, of course, shock. And because I could not see reason, Becky introduced it to me by saying, “You’re not fine! Look at your arm!” Which was clearly broken, the distal head of my radial bone swollen like a grapefruit and slightly cocked at an angle.
- I saw Sam. He was cucumber-cool, made anxious only by the fact that someone had promised to let him play iPhone games after the ride, and as far as he was concerned the ride was now over (and in case you missed my story about Children, Smart Phones and Murder, click here).
Finally, and I’m not going to bullet this since it deserves its own space, I saw this: my walking, talking smile of a wife on her horse. She was holding the lead ropes of Charlee and Sam’s colts, and all three of the horses — hers and the two she was leading — were spooked and kicking. This means that while I was laying lifeless on the asphalt, Becky had managed to dismount her bucking horse, get the kids safely off their horses, and then get back on her still-spooked horse so that she could keep them a safe distance from our kids, all the while thinking her husband had just been killed during what was supposed to be a lovely birthday present for her. I didn’t just see Becky. I saw a Becky I had never seen before, and it was the kind of sight that took the sting out of having to walk back two miles to Jane’s ranch with a broken arm.
Obviously, this ordeal wasn’t Christopher Reeves bad. In fact, of all the nightmare scenarios, this was probably the best. No concussion or permanent injury— just some cuts and bruises, a broken arm, and plenty of time to reflect on all I have to be grateful for as a result of this story.
And you might be thinking this was a man versus beast story in which the man clearly and hilariously lost. But it’s not. At least not the way I see it. The way I see it is that it was a boy meets girl story. You might be confused by this, so let me explain. I love being married. More specifically, I love being married to my wife. Occasionally, you hear people complaining about marriage, the cliche about how you’re stuck with the same person, the same old routine of microwaved dinners and boxed wine, and blah, blah, blah. I suppose that’s true. Unless you do what I did. I married a woman who won a crown as a beauty queen one day; coached a new mother through natural childbirth the next; and most recently proved that she is every bit as capable as Clint Eastwood or John Wayne or most rodeo cowboys. And that’s the routine of this marriage. Every day I wake up next to my wife, I’m waking up to meet a new girl, one far better, far more interesting, far more lovely than the one I fell asleep with the night before.
Of course, some of you might criticize that penultimate paragraph for being a little sappy, a little schmaltzy, saccharine even, but I’ve seen my wife handle a bucking bronco — a bucking bronco and two colts, actually — and I’ll do whatever it takes to stay on her good side. She may be the only person who can keep me in line.
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