There were a lot of girls named Patsy in 1954. I remember Fats Domino singing, “And I’m going to get me one.” I wish. Two houses up from ours in the opposite direction from the Dooley’s crematorium lived Jay Furner, his wife Mabel and their daughter Patsy. It’s hard to say how old Patsy was exactly. She was several years older than I and at least three grades higher. We never went to the same school together. She was slightly aloof and rather cool to most of her peers in Bestoville. This may have derived from her opinion that we were a shiftless lot, oafs and louts and no-accounts. If so, she was certainly right. More likely it was a shyness that caused her to turn her focus to horses in general and one horse in particular. Horses are easier to understand and deal with than people when all’s said and done.
From the front, driving along Rte. 50, Jay’s house looked like any other suburban house of the 1950’s. It was only when you came around the block and saw the backyard that you realized it was more a farm or ranch. The backyard was completely fenced to keep the livestock in and the critters out. There were chickens in the backyard, and they weren’t for decoration like at Catherine and Roger’s: the eggs were gathered every morning. When a hen stopped laying, her life expectancy was until Sunday. Each fall in preparation for winter, Jay had the engine from a Chevy truck set up on blocks in the yard. The engine turned a large wheel which spun a ten foot long, twisted fan-belt (it resembled the mathematical symbol for infinity) that was connected to a smaller wheel that turned a 36 inch saw blade. It was an infernal combustion machine if ever I saw one. The old Chevy engine had no muffler so when it was going full blast, it was roaring one moment and moaning the next. The fan belt flapped and slapped against itself; and the saw blade hummed like a nursing mother until it was fed a log and then it screamed holy hell. I remember one Sunday being in the backyard with all hellzapoppin. Jay was at the helm of the murderous contraption making enough noise to wake the dead three miles away. Mabel, who was good country people like Jay, came out of the house and caught one of the menopausal hens, calmly walked over to the cross section of an old log which was used as a butcher block, pinned the hen down and with no further ado chopped off its head. The hen, minus its head, was clearly upset and leaped off the block before Mabel could subdue her. It proceeded to run faster than any living chicken I ever chased during my unreformed chicken-chasing-days. A chicken without a head, as you might imagine, runs into things: fences, barn doors and even a six-cylinder Chevy engine. The other chickens could be heard voicing their general horror at the turn of events. I expected any second the shit would hit the fan when the chicken ran into the spinning saw blade, a sight I did not wish to witness. It was in that pandemonium of sights and sounds that it struck me what an attractive girl Patsy Furner really was. She was calmly stacking the rough cedar planks that Jay was running through the saw. She had work to do and did it. Saw blade buzzing, Chevy engine roaring, headless poultry pinballing within the fenced universe of her father’s making, these were to her the basic ingredients of life like flour, water, butter and bacon. She was wasted in this namby-pamby world of 1954. Homesteading in Montana, killing grizzly bears with axes, bearing babies alone in the back bedroom and preparing supper that same day before her man came home, these were the deeds she was meant to do. She was a hundred years too far down the wrong road.
Pasty was just right: not too thin and not too heavy. She was strong from all of the hard work that came with her life choices. She was probably my height or an inch taller, but so many of our encounters occurred while she was sitting on her horse with legs widely parted by the western saddle and her hands resting on the saddle horn holding the reins several feet above me that I always envisioned her much taller than she really was. I remember several years after this I had been invited to her birthday party and slowly over the course of the evening the other boys and girls had gone home. Finally, we were alone together at her house. There in her living-room, the same as my own, she came over with arms held out and asked me to dance. Our eyes met on the level. We were the same height.
People who love horses love horses. There is nothing to be done. No cure can save them. Patsy had come to her father several years before and told him she wanted a horse. He had hesitated only because he knew how much work and worry and money the ownership of a horse demanded. It became one’s whole life. He also knew his daughter. He knew how strong willed and determined she was. There was no real choice. They set to work on the garage at the back of the property and turned it into a barn with two stalls and a storage area for bales of hay and straw. When that was done, they set about finding a suitable horse. Seek and ye shall find.
The Furners were good neighbors and Patsy though rarely warm was never cold, and never gave me the impression my presence annoyed her. She was, though, all too happy to bring up the name of Dick Dobbs, a horseman of course, who was closer to her own age. I was led to believe that this Dick Dobbs was bespangled with 4H blue ribbons, first prizes and the Croix de Guerre presented by the thankful people of France for his magnificent equestrian skills. These skills had no parallels and he, she hinted, in good time would be her man. This of course tormented me with jealousy and hopelessness. If horses, as I suspected, were the only way into her heart, then a lonely walk through life, not a cantor, awaited me. I became a more frequent visitor but it would be at least two years before I became heart sick over her. It is hard to court a girl on a horse when you’re four feet below, craning up and squinting into the blinding sun just over her left shoulder.
If only we weren’t such fools, such cowards, and spoke our minds and emptied our hearts. Let all the parts fall where they may; we have our whole lives to pick up the pieces. How many loves, unspoken and unknown, drifted past on the tides of silence? How many hands reached out that never touched the other. How many lips with eyes closed never felt the hot press of the stranger, the unknown lover. For what but fear does our bed grow cold? And someone we knew, we loved, was waiting and is waiting still for eight little letters, two pronouns and a verb, a simple sentence to wrap our legs and arms around and not let go, no matter how high the water rises or how hard the wind blows: I love you.
Richard X. Bailey received his MFA from Bowling Green S.U. in 1973. He recently completed a childhood memoir, Come October!, which recounts the extraordinary years of 1953 to 1959 and the part he played in helping to make them that way. Patsy Furner, Two Houses Down is a section from that memoir. For more information on his writing and photography visit www.rxbailey.com.