Authors: Jane Smiley
Brian, of course, noticed the stockings right away, and he kept looking at them. First thing in the morning, I heard him say, “Those look nice,” and Stella just smiled and rubbed her hand down her calf, as if smoothing the nylon. She said, “They’re warmer than they look, really.” She pranced around in them for the rest of the morning.
But then, as Stella was walking into the lunchroom, with Brian right behind her, Mary A. ripped her stocking with a pencil point, and then said, “Oh! Look what happened! I am so sorry!” But Stella’s stocking had a big gaping hole in it, and now it sagged down. Mary A. was grinning.
Stella jumped back and said, “You are not sorry! You did that on purpose!”
“How dare you say that!” exclaimed Mary A., and then the other three started exclaiming, too—how dare she, what a thing to say, who did she think she was, all that sort of thing meant to make Stella out as the bad one and Mary out as the good one. Brian wasn’t saying anything for once, just standing there gawking, and I stepped forward, but Gloria poked me and shook her head. She was right. It wasn’t a good idea to attract the attention of the Big Four, especially when they were in full cry already. Stella dropped her tray on one of the tables and ran out of the lunchroom. After a moment or two, Gloria and I went after her. I saw Barbara and Alexis Goldman watch us leave the lunchroom and then turn to each other and shake their heads. Stella was in the girls’ bathroom, and she was bawling.
There wasn’t any blood, and at first I didn’t understand why she was crying like that. The Big Four had been mean, and maybe that was enough, but what Stella was saying was, “Look at it! It’s ripped! It’s terrible! I have to go home, I can’t wear this. They’re ruined!”
I said, “The other one’s okay.”
“It isn’t!” exclaimed Stella, and then she pulled up her skirt. That was the first pair of panty hose that I ever saw, and yes, if one leg was ruined, the whole thing was ruined. Then Stella said. “My mom is going to kill me, because she bought these for going to my aunt’s wedding, and they were
“Well, you better take them off,” said Gloria. “You can’t wear them that way.”
The bell rang for class. Nobody else came into the girls’ bathroom. Stella made us wait until all the noise in the hall was gone, and then we came out of the bathroom together. Stella and Gloria went to their math class, and I went to English. We were reading
It was so boring that the teacher was having us read it aloud in class just to make sure that we read at least part of it. The Big Four ignored me when I came in, and I ignored them, too. But I knew that whatever was going on with them wasn’t over and that it was going to include Gloria, me, and Brian, because we were on Stella’s side and they were the other side. That was the way things worked in seventh grade.
Gloria called me that night. I was allowed to talk to my friends for ten minutes, and I had to do it in the living room or the kitchen, because that’s where the phones were, so I couldn’t really ask questions. What I learned was that Stella got in trouble with her mom and was grounded for a week for “sneaky behavior,” that she couldn’t talk to Brian for more than ten minutes anymore, and that she had had to go to the principal’s office for calling Mary A. a bad name right out in the hall by the front door. What made her mom extra mad was that while she was in the principal’s office, the bus left without her, and her mother had to come pick her up. And she had left her book bag in her locker, so she couldn’t even do her homework. Gloria said she felt sorry for Stella since, “Nothing was her fault to start out with,” and I said that I felt sorry for Stella, too. After I hung up, Daddy said, “What’s that all about?”
“Must be something.”
He stared at me. I idled around the living room for a minute, then went up to my room. Once upon a time, I would have told him all about it, just because it wasn’t me who was in trouble, and it was all pretty interesting. But I knew what he would say: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” I didn’t think it was as easy as that.
ITH ALL THE NEW HORSES, IT WASN’T HARD TO LEAVE
George alone. And March was a busy month. First, Daddy sold Jewel Number 1 as a ranch horse, which was a nice enough life for her. She was good with the cows and never afraid of them. She could get by on hay and no grain, so they liked her for that. And later we learned that one day, she was out on the ranch with the owner, an old man, looking for a stray calf. He asked the Jewel (they kept her name, Jewel) to cross a dry riverbed, and she refused. Even though he hit her with the quirt and spurred her, she balked. Well, by that time, the owner was pretty mad, but he got off and went around to lead her to show her there was no problem with the river, except that there was—it was quicksand, and he sank up to his knees
before she pulled him out by backing away while he held on to the reins. After that, of course, she had a home for life and a friend for life. We heard this story because the man called Daddy up and told him, and thanked him for selling him “a brainy one,” and all things considered, well, she had been cheap at the price. When he was telling us about this over dinner, Daddy said, “I never would have known she had that in her, but who can tell? Thank you, Lord.”
“Amen,” said Mom.
The chestnut George got sold as a trail horse to a big hotel, and Daddy said that he might live a long time. When all a horse did all day was walk along at an easy pace, he could live to be thirty or more. And, of course, since he was at a big hotel, in a fancy barn right beside the golf course, they would keep him clean and shiny. In the summer, they were going to put him in a camp for little kids. So, all in all, Daddy was happy in spite of Ornery George and the death of the mare. Other years had been worse, and I knew not to ask about them.
The new horses were in full work now. Daddy and I rode horses until sundown every night and fed after dark. Jack was eating hay now, but he still had to be fed his milk, with bran mixed into it, in a bucket, several times a day, which was time-consuming. Mom was good with the horses because she was good with all animals, including baby birds and lost dogs, but she didn’t ride unless she was going on the trail and the horse was old and quiet. I made myself extra work, rubbing Jack with the chamois so that he would always be happy to see me. In other words, we were busy, but when Miss Slater called and
said the horse show was coming up and could I come and ride in a few classes, it seemed as easy as you please to get out my English riding clothes and brush them off, then shine up my jodphur boots and drive over there. I had never shown in them before, but Daddy had gotten them secondhand somewhere and had always told me they would come in handy. Daddy picked me up after school. The truck was clean, too, and Daddy was wearing his good hat.
I was to ride that afternoon, just to get the feel of the pony again, and then the next morning, Saturday, I was to take him in three classes—pony hunter over fences, two feet; pony hunter over fences, two feet, six inches; and pony hunter hack (no jumps). This time, Miss Slater said, Melinda would watch and learn. Maybe next time she would try it herself.
When I got there, Melinda was nowhere to be seen, and when Miss Slater saw me looking around for her, she said, “Poor Melinda. She’s home with a tummy ache. I’m sure it’s not serious.”
I said, “Does she ride the pony much?” “You mean Gallant Man, here?” “Is that what you named him, Gallant Man?” Miss Slater smiled. She said, “The original Gallant Man was a racehorse some years ago. He was quite small. When my dad took me to the Belmont Stakes that year, he put a bet on him for me, even though he himself preferred another horse. Gallant Man won, and in record time. So when I saw what a nice pony we had here and how he is ready to do anything we ask of him, I thought it would be a cute name for him. What did you call him?”
“We called him George. But that’s what we call all of them.”
“So you won’t get attached.”
She didn’t say anything about Melinda. I then mounted the pony. He was completely accustomed to the stable now, so he was as calm as he ever was at home, though there were flags flapping and horses and riders and grooms and trainers everywhere, and tents, too. Riders were showing in the main ring, in front of the biggest tent, and in another ring behind the tent. Miss Slater led me to a smaller ring that was fairly distant from all the brouhaha, down toward the trees. Daddy waved us off and went into the stands to watch the action.
Eight jumps were set out in the ring, and we had it to ourselves. The jumps were a fair selection, with colorful striped poles, flowers in boxes, and branches arranged like hedges. There were two chicken coops and two gates, too. The pony didn’t look at anything. He had seen it all in the month or so since coming here.
Miss Slater had me walk, trot, and canter both directions, with a few small circles, some halts, some shortened strides, and some lengthened strides. After that she had me warm up over some crossbars and some plain poles, the way we would warm up for a show round the next morning. Finally, she called me to the center of the ring and gave me a course. It was simple enough—I was to go to the right, jumping the white gate, then the red and white poles. After that, I was to cut across the ring diagonally, jumping one of the coops. Then I was to make a short left turn, take the blue and white poles at the end of the ring, then the one-stride in-and-out on the far side, finishing
up over the black and white gate. The last exercise was to turn the pony in one nice circle on the proper lead and come down quietly to the trot and the walk.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked.
I can’t say that Daddy and I ever thought in terms of “courses” of jumps. For one thing, we didn’t have very many standards or poles and for another, we weren’t in the jumping horse business. That was probably why I lost my way after the third jump, turned right instead of left, and was faced with the first jump again, even though I knew that was wrong. We jumped it and then I pulled Gallant Man to a halt. Miss Slater came over. “Mixed up?”
“Okay, try this.” She had me just go around the outside of the arena, jumping each of the seven jumps as they were set, including the in-and-out, which was two fences set one stride apart. You jumped twice, but it counted, for scoring purposes, as one effort. This, too, was harder than it looked, but I made it. When I came back to her, she said, “Abby, that wasn’t bad.”
I knew there was a
“But you seemed a little out of control. This time, I want you to go more slowly, sit up more in the turns, and not let the pony lean to the inside.”
When I did it again, I realized how bad the previous time had been by the fact that I actually felt the pony canter to the jumps this time in a balanced way and jump them in a balanced way, without leaning to the inside. The last thing you want your pony to do when he’s jumping is take them tilted.
She said, “I would like you to think about the jumps that
are coming up when you are going
the corner of the arena rather than coming out of it.”
I tried this the third time around. It was much better.
This time she said, “You’re a fast learner. And a good rider. Try the first course again.”
She stood with me in the center of the ring and gestured to demonstrate the course again. I was to fix the turns in my mind first and the jumps in my mind second.
I repeated the course back to her.
She said, “That’s right. One other thing.”
“Look where you are going to be ten strides ahead, not two or five strides ahead.”
It was easy.
In fact, that night in bed, I lay there for a fairly long time, trying to figure out how it had gone so quickly from being impossible the first time to being easy the last time. I pictured the jumps in my mind, one after another. I realized that the most important thing was not that I was jumping jumps, but that I was riding a route from one spot to another, just like on a map. If I remembered the map and sat up, we would get there.
When we arrived at the show the next morning, Daddy went right up to Melinda’s father, Mr. Frederick Anniston, held out his hand, and introduced himself. Mr. Anniston was wearing a tweed jacket and another coat and a dark-colored hat with a green feather in the band. He had on gloves and seemed to be cold; Melinda was pressed against him and looked as though the weather had shrunk her down to nothing. Melinda’s
mother didn’t seem to be around. Mr. Anniston didn’t speak to me, but he watched me.
There were six other ponies in the warm-up area, which was fairly large, and six trainers calling out to six riders. Two of the ponies were very fancy—they almost looked more like reduced-size horses than ponies. The other four were just ponies. Gallant Man, the only gray, was prettier than all of those four. I wove my way among the other ponies—this part wasn’t hard. After we warmed up, Daddy held Gallant Man, and Miss Slater walked with me around the course, step by step, so that I could learn it on my feet. The course had more than two turns—it had four—and more than seven fences. If you counted both halves of the in-and-out, it had nine fences.