Wide River by Mark Saha

Monday, March 28, 2022
When Leslie moves to Oklahoma to try and make his way in the world, he finds himself with a job opportunity, a girlfriend, and a moral reckoning; by Mark Saha.

"The horse doesn't feel a thing," Steve Willit said. "They position the captive bolt gun right about here." He placed two fingers to his forehead above his eyes. "The bolt fires directly into the brain. Activists like to post videos of horses thrashing around. You're just looking at a carcass. The horse is gone. It's like a chicken flopping around after its head is chopped off."

We were eating breakfast in a booth at Josie's, a little café on the west side of town where he had agreed to meet me. It was the summer of my first year at Oklahoma University, and I had stayed over in Norman for a great literature seminar taught by a famous visiting professor. I was in need of pocket money, but the country was in the second year of the worst recession in recent memory and there wasn't a whole lot out there. Somebody in a hardware store told me to talk to Willit. He was a well-liked local farrier and cutting horse competitor who owned a ranch somewhere out near Lawton, I believe. I couldn't imagine what he might have for me, but called anyway. He said a young college student might be someone he could work with and suggested we meet. Josie's was about half-way between us, though I now think he picked it because neither of us was likely to come across anyone we knew there.

I liked Steve Willit a lot. He was raising two little girls out on the ranch with his wife Rebecca, and seemed decent and knowledgeable. I was only a year out of high school but he treated me like an equal and an adult. We shared thoughts about what we wanted out of life, and by the time we finished breakfast felt comfortable with each other.

Like most people in the horse business, he had to know a lot about markets and the economy. Real estate collapsed a couple of years back, and he explained how that had tripped-up not just him but a lot of other ranchers and trainers.

"Greed is what's killing the horses," he said. "I can't tell you how frustrating that is to people like me who are in the business." He talked a little about breeders registering too many foals and then dumping their failures on an already saturated domestic pet market. But he really got rolling when he started in on the big banks, and how they had triggered the collapse in real estate that threw the country into the worst recession in recent memory.

It seemed to me horsemen were among the savviest people you can ask about how capital flow and markets are connected. The way Steve explained it, a ten-year housing bubble had been fueled by sub-par mortgages issued by greedy banks. All that lending to unqualified buyers increased the default rate on mortgages. Mortgage-based financial products began to underperform and investors stopped buying them. Investment houses were stuck with a backlog of inventory and quit buying home mortgages. Banks now had so much capital tied up in mortgages they were short on cash to perform other services.

"Leslie, you go to college, so I'm pretty sure you can follow this," Steve said. "Suppose a retailer in San Francisco needs a letter of credit so a manufacturer in China can ship him toys for the Christmas season. If the bank is deep into mortgages, it won't have cash reserves to issue the letter of credit. The retailer has a poor Christmas without toys to sell while the manufacturer's warehouse is overstocked with product. Retailers lay off sales clerks and manufacturers lay off workers. Unemployment goes up and pushes even more people into default on home mortgages. We still haven't seen the bottom of this thing."

What he said made a lot of sense, though I didn't quite understand how so many people in high government or corporate positions could have allowed it to happen.

Steve said the horse industry was among the first to feel the hit because it is particularly sensitive to economic weakness. The day when the horse was a necessity of life is dead and gone, was how he explained it. A lot of people would still love to own one. But even if horses were free, few could afford the expense of upkeep. It is not a dog or cat. You're talking stable fees, farrier bills, vet bills, trailers, stall maintenance and I can't even imagine what else he left out.

When the economy slows people need to cut back on nonessentials. If it goes into crisis like now, they start shedding horses like a dog shaking off fleas. Steve's farrier business was losing clients, and he couldn't pick up the slack by selling off his own horses because everyone else was getting rid of them too.

"Things are so bad I've caught people trying to sneak their horses onto my property at night and leave them for me to look after. Ask any rancher, he'll tell you the same thing. They have to police horse auctions now to keep animals from being abandoned there. We're seeing horses turned loose in open country to fend for themselves. What in God's name is wrong with somebody who would do that? I'm pretty sure he's hard up and probably in foreclosure, but what makes him think somebody else is going to look after his animals? Nobody else can afford them either."

Steve leaned back in the booth and gathered his thoughts. When he sat forward again, he spoke in a more confidential tone. "Nobody wants to hear this part," he said, "but where do you think all those horses end up? We banned slaughterhouses in this country, but trailers are rolling day and night hauling excess horses to Canada and Mexico. That's just how it is right now and there's nothing anybody can do to stop it."

Steve seemed satisfied I was a decent enough kid and he could trust me, but continued in a low voice so no one else could overhear.

"Leslie, I know a young student like you can always use a little extra money," he said. "God knows I sure can. Now, there are a lot of people out there who need to let go of their horses, and one way or another most of them are going to end up with kill buyers. There's nothing we can do to about that, but I believe we can make a little money off it without doing anybody any harm." He paused to see if he had lost me. I was still listening but felt out of my depth. "If what I'm about to say doesn't feel right to you," he said, "I'll pick up the breakfast tab and let's walk out of here and forget we ever met. But I'm looking for a decent, nice looking young fellow like you. I believe we can help each other out."

I was impressed with Steve Willit and wanted to work with him. I wasn't sure where he was going with this, but told him I was open to learning something new as long as it was legal.

"Son, I would never drag you into something against the law," he said. "I'm talking about an opportunity to help people who can't afford to keep their horses, by relieving them of fear the animal will go to a kill buyer. If we can do that and get paid for it, would it interest you?"

I was pretty sure my mother would not allow me to get involved with Steve Willit if we were in Beaumont. She had been pretty strict about girls and other things we disagreed on back home, and generally got her way. But I was on my own in Oklahoma now and found that exhilarating, so I was going to have to figure this one out for myself. Though something about it didn't feel right, everything Steve Willit said made sense.

Steve took my silence to mean I was still in play. He took out some glossy business cards for an organization called Milton's Meadows Horse Refuge.

"A fellow named Dominic Henstill owns this property," he said. "You can check out his website. Milton's Meadows pledges any horse donated to the refuge will be sheltered and well cared for while they make a good faith effort to place it in a proper home. Now, being in the farrier business, I pretty much know who needs to get rid of a horse around here. I can tip you off on who to contact about donating an animal to them. Believe me, people are going to be thrilled to death to find a young college student who is doing summer volunteer work for a refuge and offers to take a horse off their hands."

I fingered one of the cards, pondering this. "Why don't you just give out these cards yourself?"

"Leslie, I like to think I'm a good person. People around here know me, and I have a family and reputation to protect. Let me be straight with you. There's not enough refuge acreage in the whole country to accept ten percent of the excess horses out there. Henstill is a kill buyer for an operation in Mexico. He opened this refuge to siphon off excess horses from people who need to sell but are afraid the animal will go to a kill buyer."

"Is that legal?" I was awash.

"Milton's Meadows delivers one hundred percent on the terms of the transfer ownership contract," Steve said. "They pledge to make a good faith effort to place donated horses in good homes. Everybody knows that's not going to happen in this market. But the attempt fulfills his obligation, and he can then dispose of the horse. That's how things work in the real world, son. People don't like to admit it, but there are times when they don't want the truth. They want somebody to tell them what they need to hear. They're suffering from a world of hurt out there right now, and need somebody like us to show them how to do what they have to do and not feel bad about it. We don't take a dime from them. They donate the animal to Milton's Meadows. Henstill sells it to the slaughterhouse and we get a commission check for the referral. Our money comes from Mexico."

I studied the card again. "You tell me who to contact, but other than that we don't know each other?"

Steve nodded. "I'm part of the horse community out here. If this thing were to unravel and it came out I was involved with Henstill, my farrier business and ranching operation would be ruined. It's different with you. You're from out of state, and you're going to graduate and move on anyway."

Steve slid a slip of paper across the table to me. "This man needs to sell yesterday. You might call him and see how it goes. Tell him you're a student volunteer and ask to see the horse. Then give him a card and suggest he contact them. That's it. You'll never see him again. Henstill's people will handle the paperwork and pick up the horse. We split the commission check down the middle."

I studied the name on the slip of paper. "I'd like to think about it," I said.

"It's entirely up to you, son. I'd like to see you give it a shot. Nobody will get hurt. If it doesn't feel right, just walk away and no hard feelings. But I believe we can make money together."

Steve left me with a lot to think about back in my off campus summer apartment. A graduate history student who had been my TA was having me house sit his place while he was in Australia; I looked after his orange tabby, Mr. Pink, and drove his car enough so the battery wouldn't die.

My folks wanted me to come home to Beaumont, but I was relishing my new independence. The opportunity to improve my knowledge of great literature by attending a seminar by a visiting professor from Europe proved too compelling even for my mom and she relented. The past year had been an exhilarating experience, out on my own in the world without the folks looking over my shoulder every minute to check up on me.

I lay on the bed with the orange tabby purring on my chest and pondered the slip of paper Steve had given me. Mr. Pink sniffed at it, though it wasn't anything for him. A fellow named Robert Holm needed to find a new owner for a horse called Posey. I wondered who this man was, and what he might be like, and what sort of circumstances had put him in such crisis. Steve said he would be grateful to hear from me. I wasn't at all sure I wanted to get involved in this, but was intrigued enough that I did not see the harm in making the call.

An older man answered.

"Yes, sir," I said. "I'm calling to see if the horse you advertised is still available."

"Well, we're still trying to find the right home for her. Where did you see our ad?"

"Horseclicks," I said. Steve had written that on the scrap of paper too. "Actually I'm a student volunteer for Milton's Meadows Horse Rescue. There's a lot of excess horses on the market right now and we're contacting sellers to see if they've been able to place their animals. Sometimes we're able to help out."

"What's your name, son?"

"Leslie Willbanks. I'll be a sophomore at OU this fall. I stayed in Norman for the summer to attend a literature seminar.

"Well, I appreciate your call, son. No, we're still hoping something will open up."

"Can you tell me a little about the horse?"

"She's a very gentle sweet sixteen-year-old chestnut mare. Fourteen hands, good health. My daughter grew up with her. We hate to let her go but our circumstances have changed."

"Yes, there's a lot of that these days," I said. "Where is the horse now?"

"She has a paddock behind the house. We're zoned for horses out here so it's been an ideal situation. But I lost my job last year so it's different now. I've been offered a position in Atlanta. My daughter graduated high school and flies for Delta so she lives in Dallas. We'd like to keep Posey but the property is in escrow and we just can't afford a boarding ranch right now. Annie doesn't get home much to spend time with her anyway. My wife and I discussed this and feel we have to let her go. Posey has been family for so many years that it's been a hard decision."

"Let me ask you this," I said. "Would you be willing to donate the animal to a horse refuge where she would be cared for until they can place her in a good home?"

"Well, Annie's been insisting on meeting the new owner face-to-face. She wants to be sure it's someone who will love Posey as much as we do. Don't get me wrong, I know it's just a horse. But Posey and my daughter took to each other when she was growing up. We all feel she's part of the family. When you've lived with an animal for that long, you hate to just throw her to the wind."

"I certainly understand that, sir," I said. "I was just calling to let you know about Milton's Meadows, because sometimes they can help people like you."

"Well, I appreciate that, son. To be honest, with the property in escrow, we're running out of options. My wife and daughter are getting a little upset about the situation. How would we go about exploring something like that?"

"Start with our website," I said. "It shows our facilities and has endorsements from people we've helped. We're mostly young volunteers like me from all over. We also have a few ranchers who have stepped forward and pledged to accept some of our animals until we can find a permanent home for them."

"It sounds like something we need to think about."

"If you like, I can come by and look at the - at Posey - to make sure she's right for our program."

He considered this for a moment. "Maybe you ought to do that, son," he said. "Let me give you our address. It would be a godsend if we qualify for something like this."

I wrote down directions to Robert Holm's house and said I would be there that afternoon.

"Leslie, I appreciate you taking the trouble to contact us," he said. "It's hard to become bitter about life when there's young people like you in the world."

I hung up and lay on the bed fiddling with my phone and mulled over how easily that had gone. This was not something I would have considered for a minute growing up in Beaumont. But I was on my own in Oklahoma now, and eager to become more sophisticated about how the real world works.

It looked to me like Steve could be right. Mr. Holm seemed grateful for the helping hand I offered. Steve and I might not save any horses, but people count for something too, and we were not charging them a dime. Steve said our commission shaved a little profit off the kill buyers, and I couldn't see anything wrong with that. They would get the horse anyway, one way or another. We were just making it easier on the people who had to let the animal go.

I suppose everybody lies once in a while, but it was the only part of this I wasn't sure about. I ran what Steve said though my mind again and again, and somehow it always made sense. The only way to find out how I felt for sure was to go to see Mr. Holm.

The directions took me to a large tract of undeveloped land outside Newcastle that was being prepared for new homes when the recession brought construction to a halt. The Holms residence was a ranch style house on a cul de sac in an older subdivision out here. They had a fairly new sedan and a Land Rover in the driveway. The realtor's placard on the front yard said "Sold", and I could see curtains had already been taken down from the living room windows.

I rang the bell and waited. A man and woman were talking somewhere inside. The man who opened the door was in his forties, with the benign and slightly tired look of someone who had been out of work for a while.

"Mr. Holm? Leslie Willbanks."

"Hello, son. I appreciate you coming." He opened the screen door enough to shake my hand. "Listen, my wife and I discussed this and decided to stay out of it. You need to talk to Annie. She's in back with one of her friends. Why don't you just go around the side of the house there. She'll introduce you to Posey and the two of you can talk."

There was a wooden gate along the side of the house. I opened the latch and passed down a narrow corridor between the house and a high hedge separating their property from the lot next door. I emerged into a dazzling sunlit backyard; it was about an acre of land, and beyond the far fence I could see another acre of undeveloped land that ran to a distant boulevard. Except for a paddock behind the garage, it was nothing but green grass and blue sky.

Annie was saddled up on Posey, a dark haired girl on a red dun mare, talking to a tall blonde girl in shorts stretched on a deck lounge on the veranda. The blonde was sipping iced tea from a tall glass with a slice of orange on the rim. I was struck by how lucky some girls are to grow up around horses like this.

"Hi," the dark haired girl said. "Are you Leslie?"

"Leslie Willbanks. Mr. Holm said I could find Annie back here."

"I'm Annie." She reached down and offered her hand. I touched it. "And this is Claire."

"Hello," Claire said. A little flick of her fingers was all I got, along with just the trace of a smile. Her blue eyes briefly swept over me with a look of curiosity. Though we were about the same age, I was a little intimidated by these girls. They were flight attendants who I imagined must have seen a lot of the world and been through several boyfriends since high school.

"Claire came up from Dallas for moral support," Annie said. She dismounted and gently pulled the horse a little closer. "And this is Posey."

I stroked Posey on the nose and she reacted as if pleased by my touch.

"She likes people." Annie said. "She's very trusting."

"I'm supposed to ask you some questions," I said. "Steve had given me things to ask that a horse refuge would want to know. "Is she suitable for a small child?"

"Oh, totally. I was nine when I got her."

"What about physical problems?"

"She's older, but sound. I have all her vet records."

"Anything inside of her?" Steve said this was important because horses that had been given certain hormones or supplements might not be fit for human consumption.

"No, nothing. Just sunshine, water, and a healthy diet."

Claire was eating the orange slice from her tea, but I could tell she was listening to us talk.

"Do you want to ride her?" Annie said.

"Well, I'm not exactly a horse person, to be honest."

"Oh, my God. Then what are you doing here?"

"Like I said, I'm a summer volunteer."

"Well, we can't have that," Annie said. "Okay, Posey's never killed anyone yet. Put your foot in here and grab the saddle horn." Clare was watching with interest now to see what was going to happen.

I did like Annie said and pulled myself into the saddle. Posey adjusted to my weight and I guess was sort of making up her mind about me. I got a feel for the reins.

"Now just give her a little touch with your heels and tell her to go."

We trotted down the length of the yard to the rail fence. Cars whispered down the asphalt boulevard in the distance, and you could see a new shopping center across from that. The veranda where Annie and Claire waited was about a football field away. I stroked Posey's neck with my hand. She was a fine companion, all right.

"Okay Posey, let's do this!" I said. I kicked at her and we returned at trot to rejoin the girls.

I think Claire had been looking to see if I would fall over the rail fence when I pulled her up, and I'm sure she would have laughed about it. But I had handled everything fine and was a little pleased with myself.

"She's a wonderful animal," I said.

I dismounted and offered her the reins. We were both a little unsure about what to do next.

"Did you get a chance to look at our web site?"

"I did. I think it's wonderful what you're doing. It's just, well, I was hoping to meet the new owner. I'd like to be sure it's someone who cares about her like we do."

"If you can find someone you feel is right for Posey, that's absolutely the way to go."

"We're trying, but it's not working."

"Why don't we do this. Give it a little more time and see if something comes up. If not, this horse is fine with us."

She took the glossy business card from me. "Is this your number?"

"No, I just came to screen the animal. I'll leave a copy of the transfer of ownership agreement for you to look over. If you decide to go this route, they'll send someone out to settle the paper work and take possession. It's pretty easy."

She glanced at the transfer agreement and folded it with the business card.

"Thank you for coming all the way out here, Leslie," she said. "I have a good feeling about you. I wish you were the one taking Posey, because then I wouldn't worry about her at all. But I feel a lot better about this now."

I gave Posey's nose a little rub and said goodbye to Annie. Claire was looking for something in her purse, so I was unable to catch her eye and left without saying anything to her.

I was getting in the car to leave when someone called to me.

"Hey college boy, get back here!" It was Claire. She had followed me and was standing by the gate at the side of the house. There was a mischievous glow about her.

I went back to see what she wanted. She showed me a twenty-dollar bill and slipped it into my shirt pocket.

"What's that?"

"You forgot your tip," she said.

"You don't tip volunteers."

Then I realized she was messing with me. Claire threw her arms around me and embraced me so tightly I thought she would squeeze the breath out of me. When she pulled back, she gave me a quick peck on the cheek.

"She's going to do it!" she said. "Leslie, where do guys like you come from?" She reached up and pushed back the hair that had fallen across my face. "You have no idea how important what you just did was for Annie, do you?"

"It was nothing," I said. I was a little embarrassed that she was making such a big fuss over this. Steve said people would be grateful, but this was not exactly how I wanted to impress a girl like Claire.

"Yup, totally clueless," she said. "You don't know how wonderful you are. I'm so sick of jerks. Look, do you have a girlfriend?"


"Okay, that settles it. I'm taking you to dinner someplace really really nice. No arguments."

"Dinner where?" I would not have had the courage to ask out a girl like this, and here she was all over me. I was impressed at how confident and self-assured she was about herself.

"I have to fly tomorrow but I'll call when I get back," she said. "What's your number?"

"Fly where?" I was in a daze.

"Amsterdam. I have back to back turnarounds so it'll be about a week. What's your number?"

I told her and she entered it into her phone.

The next few days were a blur. I couldn't get Claire out of my head. Was she really going to call? I knew I wanted to see her again, but was a little scared about her being so impressed with the things I told Annie. I reminded myself that what I had done was for Annie's own good, but it still didn't feel right.

I called Steve that same day and told him things had gone well and I thought the Holms would go with the refuge.

"I knew I was right about you," he said.

"Look, I don't think I want to do this anymore," I said.

Steve was disappointed but respected my wishes. He said he would send my commission cut, and that I should give him a call if I changed my mind. I knew I would not. I still couldn't say whether what we had done was good or bad, but it was a world away from the person Claire had mistaken me for.

I wasn't sure Claire would call when she was back from Europe, but hoped she would. I wanted to see her again, and worried that she might find someone else in Amsterdam.

I realized Claire was my girlfriend when she started picking out underwear for me in a Nordstrom's in Dallas. We're talking twenty-five dollar a pair Ralph Lauren Polo, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein. Red, blue, green, black, anything but white. When we got back to my summer apartment in Norman, she started going through the dresser and threw out all my tighty-whiteys. She said she never wanted to catch me in them again.

We had talked about moving in together. By now, Claire and I had been seeing each other all summer, and the graduate student would be back from Australia so I had to find another place. She said if we could find something off campus in Norman, she could take a shuttle flight from Will Rogers to Dallas to work her Delta flights.

I liked Claire a lot but struggled to hold back my feelings because I wasn't sure she was really going to stay. I was pretty sure I wouldn't come across a girl like her again anytime soon and didn't want to let her go. We were different in so many ways, and yet we seemed to work.

Claire was a year older than me, had grown up in Long Beach, and went to work for Delta right out of high school. She knew her way around famous cities across the globe, while the OU campus was about as far as I had been from Beaumont. She was comfortable about ordering in high-end restaurants, bought her bathing suits at a favorite shop in Sweden, owned electronics from Tokyo, knew how to handle getting propositioned by passengers with alcohol on their breath, and I imagined had been through a lot of boyfriends.

Claire enjoyed showing me how to have a fun night out bar-hopping and meeting other people, but also liked lying around the apartment listening to me talk about literature. We were different in so many ways but learned a lot from each other, and so far we seemed to work.

"I'm sleeping with a pilot but he's married so it's not going anywhere," she said over breakfast the first time she stayed over. When she saw I didn't know how to respond to that, she added, "He doesn't know it but his time is short."

I guess I had stolen some Delta pilot's girlfriend.

University life was foreign to her, and she was a little in awe of the rows of books that filled the walls of the grad student's apartment. She would hold Mr. Pink in her arms and stroke him while she browsed his book-shelves. "I can't imagine anybody having read all these," she said.

I told her he had probably read only parts of them. What I learned in the great literature seminar was the important thing was to know was which books were really important, and to be familiar with the passages that made them so influential. Our prof said we were too busy with classes and social life to be expected to read complete books at our age. He said after graduation we would be unemployed and lying around on the couch at our parents' house, and could revisit this literature at leisure.

Claire was properly impressed, as I hoped she would be, as she flipped through the first volume of Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica with curiosity. "There's an important book nobody reads," I said. "They proved logic and mathematics are the same." I had taken freshman philosophy and was able to interpret a few of the logical statements for her, but she had enough and slipped it back on the shelf.

I reassured her that I was more impressed by her experiences traveling the world, and her ease around people from so many different places, than she ought to be with a book.

"We should get married," she said. "Spouses of Delta employees can fly for practically nothing."

I had no idea how she intended that. "I'm supposed to marry you so I can fly for free?"

"It doesn't mean anything," she said with the hint of a dismissive shrug. She was looking at A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. "We could go anywhere together."

"Claire, are you asking me to marry you?"

"We'll see." The faint trace of a smile flickered briefly across her face as she put the book back in place.

She wanted to see where I had grown up in Beaumont and meet my family, but I persuaded her to hold off on that until Thanksgiving. My mom would think I had stayed in Oklahoma for the summer because of a girl, which wasn't at all true but I saw no need to stir that pot. Claire liked bars, so I promised at Thanksgiving I would show her so-called Fort Griffin, where Houston tavern owner Dick Dowling with just three cannon and about eighty men had stopped a Union ironclad invasion up the Sabine river to capture Beaumont. Claire always spent Christmas in Long Beach with her family, and said if I wanted to come that year she'd teach me how to surf.

I drove Claire to Will Rogers to put her on a shuttle to Dallas, and promised to look at a few apartments for us while she was gone. I was trying to figure out how seriously to take her remark about marriage. It occurred to me if we were to do that so I could fly places with her on Delta, and then it worked out, we could just stay married.

It was the end of August, and I was looking forward to the fall and to Thanksgiving and Christmas with Claire.

"Oh," she said as we kissed our goodbyes. "I almost forgot. I heard from Annie. Her parents found a really good house in Atlanta with a paddock. She might want to buy Posey back."

I had not seen it coming.

"Why would she want to do that," I said. "I mean, she doesn't live at home anymore."

"I don't know," Claire said. "Anyway she's thinking about it. Can you find out who bought her?"

"I was just a volunteer and only worked a few days," I said. "They let me go because they couldn't take any more horses."

"There must be someone you can ask."

"Not really," I said. "The person who recruited me was a volunteer too." Somehow I had allowed myself to forget about Steve Willit, and wished she would drop this.

"Annie says Milton's Meadows is out of business. Something about a lawsuit."

"There's a lot of horses out there right now," I said. "She can have her pick and give one a nice home."

"No, she wants Posey." She kissed me goodbye. "Anyway I'll tell her what you said." She kissed me again and disappeared into the terminal.

The last time I saw Claire was at Laurel Tavern in Dallas. She didn't want to meet me again at all, but I wouldn't have it any other way. She agreed only reluctantly.

Two days earlier she had phoned out of the blue.

"Annie says Milton's Meadows was owned by Dominic Henstill, a registered kill buyer for a Mexican slaughterhouse company," she said. "He was paying commissions to volunteers for soliciting donated horses. What did you know about this, Leslie?"

There was a long silence. I grappled for words.

"Claire, I swear to God I can explain, but we have to meet somewhere to talk because it's complicated."

She did not say anything.

"I don't want to lose you," I said. I was pleading.

The night shuttle was half-empty and the lights of Dallas that had once thrilled this Beaumont kid seemed hollow on final approach. I had been running through my mind the things I was going to say. Somehow I got it in my head that if I could only explain this right, she would understand. I would tell her about sub-par home mortgages and default rates and banks losing liquidity, and how there was not refuge space for ten percent of the excess horses on the market. She would see how it was a good thing to tell people the things they needed to hear when they had to let go of animals they could not afford.

The moment the plane touched down and began its abrupt deceleration, a sinking realization swept over me. She was too well-traveled for such talk. For the life of me I still could not find a flaw in the way Steve had explained these things, but knew what he had said would simply not interest Claire.

She was already seated at the table when I showed up at Laurel Tavern. She looked devastated and hopeless. Three days ago it would have been unimaginable to me that I would see this confident and self-assured girl in such a state. I took a seat but she did not say anything.

"Hi," I said, as gently as I could.

Her eyes were moist and vulnerable. She waited for me to say something magical to make all this go away.

"I only did it once," I said. "Annie was the only one, I swear. The minute I got home I called my recruiter and quit."

"I don't want to be here," she said softly.

"Claire, please don't do this," I said. "I'm not ready to move on. I wouldn't even know how to begin to do that. I don't want to let you go."

"I don't hate you, Leslie," she said. "I thought I knew you, but I have no clue who you are or what you're about. I used to think I could read people, but I never even saw you coming. That's a new trick life played on me. I hadn't seen that one before."

"I know we can get past this," I said. "There's more to me than this. I can show you, but you have to give me the chance."

"I don't think I'd like that," she said. "I'm afraid of what I might find out and that scares me. It scares me a lot."

"Tell me what to do," I said. I was in despair. "Please, just tell me. I'll do whatever you want."

"I need you to let me go," she said. "Promise you won't call ever again. If you have any feelings at all for me, I need you to promise that."

I believe Claire meant it when she said she didn't hate me. But she was stranded on the far side of a river of my own creation, one without bridges or fords, and too wide and deep for either of us to cross.

It was the hardest thing I ever did, when I agreed to respect Claire's wishes.

I stay away from her every day now. It's the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning. When I take a shower and brush my teeth, I'm staying away from Claire. When I'm studying for mid-terms, I'm staying away from Claire. If I'm watching TV, I'm staying away from Claire. If I pass finals next spring, I'll be a junior at OU who's staying away from Claire.

I still can't say whether Steve was right or wrong because I just can't tell about such things anymore. I wouldn't have lost Claire if I hadn't gotten involved with him, but never would have met her in the first place if it wasn't for him. I wish we could have met some other way, but don't see how else in the world our paths would have ever crossed if I hadn't shown up to talk Annie Holm out of her horse.

Claire's last words linger in my head like it was yesterday. When she got up from the table to leave, she said, "Leslie, this is going to hurt for a long long time..."


  1. An interesting take on what is a huge problem in the US. My friend owns a rescue ranch in Nevada which started when they went to an auction to buy a horse and discovered kill buyers. I enjoyed reading the story, well put together.

  2. It was a real page-turner. I knew nothing about the kill business and learned some thiings which are quite unsettling. Good job with the dialogue.

    1. Thanks Bill. The situation in the story is not uncommon, but is not much talked about.

  3. A very interesting example of two people's different level of ethics. It is truly a real life event that happens in many relationships. I enjoyed this very much. Thank you.

  4. Good read. Interesting subject. Serious dilemma for both people.

  5. Really fascinating story. Well-told in the sense that you can see the dilemma unfolding but at a measured and well ordered pace.

  6. Well written story about paradox and karma. The story flows well and absorbed me into the protagonist's world. He was a bit of an opportunist and a good rationalizer of his actions, and he was not a bad person.. I felt sorry for Claire,but I guess the discovery of the lie was quite shattering. No one is perfect!

  7. Great take on a love story, in particular a "first love" story, emphasizing the innocence of a young man. The world conspires and the lessons are hard -- universal in those themes but so specific, and original, in tying together sinister but contemporary realities of bank collapses and the horse kill business. Highly original.