by Donna Lee Miele 

The top-load stuck at drain.

A problem because Frank’s good work pants were in there. He only had two pairs—the others were tar-stained from a driveway job he probably should’ve turned down, but the couple were friends of Margery’s and he owed them a favor. The ones in the top-load weren’t bad, just dusty from today’s woodmilling—he only threw them in to fill out a load of socks, along with the stocking cap he’d found on the floor of his truck. It must’ve been there since winter, gathering dust. Last he wore it, Margery was in the hospital.

He called over to Stace, the attendant—a good soul, despite the hippy hair and tie-dyes, like him a Carhartts fan. They’d compared workboots and shared photos of their kids. “Stace. Got a couple trash bags?”

“Those top-loads,” she said. “Some people swear by ’em, though. I guess they’re easier on the delicates.”

“I definitely wouldn’t know about that,” said Frank, “Just didn’t want to line up for the front-loads.” Stace stumped over and handed him a bag, commenting about his lingerie. They shared a laugh that made him feel re-connected to the world for a second. “Hey,” he said, “you got a second bag?”

Stace gave him a look, but walked him to her station and dug out the bag.

Frank felt bad without knowing why he should. “What,” he said, “is there a quota? The pants are too heavy for one bag.”

“No, I gotta ration water sometimes—trash bags are free as God made ’em,” she said. “But you know, we have a drop-off service. I could’ve took care of those Carhartts for you, soon as one of the front-loads was free.”

Frank tried reviving the flirty vibe of the lingerie joke. “Who knew? You got to advertise better.”
“And you got to learn to ask for help, dude,” she said, spinning a finger in the air. “It’s how the world goes ’round.”
“Okay.” Frank balled up the bags in one hand.
“I could take care of those pants today, even,” she said. She wasn’t flirting back. She was being nice—she was anice person, was all. “No charge.”

Frank waved his bags. “Next time, Stace.”

Maybe, he thought, he should pay the five bucks or whatever fee, next time there was a line for the front-loads. But he’d gotten leery of favors. He and Margery had been going through two years of people forcing favors on them so far, and Frank never could relax into it.

The water in the machine seemed too warm on his hands as he hauled out his load. He’d punched in a cold wash, but it was a hundred degrees today, and the pipes leading in from outside must still be glowing hot, even past 5pm. He hoped the hat hadn’t run and messed up the pants.

When he got home, he saw that Margery had managed to make herself a smoothie. He could see she’d drunk some of it, too—“glass half empty” described the bright side of life, with regard to Margery’s appetite—and was pleased that she’d gotten herself out to the deck on her own. He’d insisted on a deck when they moved out here from town, even though all Frank could manage around the trailer was a bit of lattice and some plywood on top of the footings. They were on the hill facing town now, and the sun set behind them, but it was still a pretty view at twilight, with the little houses glowing clean and buttery in the waning light, the lamps around the rodeo grounds coming on like a fairy convention.

“Ho there, Cowboy,” she called, just like always, even though Frank hadn’t ridden since—God, it had been thirty years since Skye died. The only horse he’d ever owned in this country, to which he’d come in the first place just to ride.
“Hey there, Mama,” he said, just like always. He went around to the back of the truck and eased out the doubled trash bag.
“Hooo-lyy, what’d you do at the laundromat?” Margery said, and her gaze was as clear as ever in her thinned-out face.
“Wasn’t me,” Frank said. “It was the damned machine. It got stuck at drain.”

Margery laughed. That gave Frank a buzz. He’d haul home half-done laundry every night, just to hear her laugh. He grinned and then, thinking in the next moment about the shortage of laughs they’d be facing this summer, he wanted to cry.

He coughed into his shoulder. “Sure, you can laugh,” he said. “When was the last time you cared about the colors running between your stocking cap and your only good pair of pants?”

“I don’t care, and good riddance,” she said. “You can have your crockpot and your fall bulbs, too!”

Margery had declared herself retired from housework long before she got sick, as soon as their youngest was out of the house. It didn’t bother Frank. He liked stewing chicken and sorting cold-darks from hot-whites. (Most of the garden at the old house, which had meandered into beds of mismatched annuals and perennials and vegetables when the kids were little, they built a deck over.) Margery had liked to keep up with what people call the heavy cleaning—getting into the seams around the toilet, into the kitchen corners to scour away the old grease.

“Just sunflowers this year, remember?” Frank said gently. They’d agreed not to dwell on the fall.
“No, no,” Margery said, pointing at him, those eyes of hers drilling through him, “Sunflowers and tomatoes. Both of the kids will be home.”

“Right,” he murmured. “Can’t have anyone pouting.”

Michael was the sunflowers—poor kid, he and Margery had uprooted a yellow jackets’ nest preparing the bed when he was only about five years old, and it had always been a point of controversy whether Michael should consider the magnificent blooms, two heads taller than a tall man, worth the insult to his genitals. Gracie was the tomatoes. Margery had grumbled every dawn that she had to go out to tie up vines and shoo thirsty robins from the ripening fruit, but the photo of Gracie smiling her noonday-sun smile at the homemade roadside stand still had pride of place above the trailer’s kitchen table. Our tomatoes are verry sweet, read the sign, with all the esses turned backward.

“Sunflowers’ll be pretty easy, even with the dirt so hard,” Frank said, kicking the ground. “Get some potting soil, cram it in the cracks between some of the boulders there up the hill, make sure they get plenty of water to begin with, sunflowers’ll be up in no time and they’ll last all summer. Tomatoes, though.” He wrung his hands together absently, as if anticipating the pain of digging into the yellow clay. Maybe he could pull some of the bigger Tupperwares out from under the deck and start the tomatoes indoors, where it wasn’t so dry, hack some holes into the clay and move them outside just before Gracie came home. Thinking about the Tupperwares and nice wicker baskets that had accumulated over the last two years got Frank wondering what Margery had eaten today. They had always tossed most of the strange casseroles people kept on bringing—Why does everyone think that sick people run better on shitty food? Margery would fume in the early days of her first post-surgical recovery—and maybe it was the guilt that kept Frank from ever returning the containers. Lately, though, no matter what brewed in the crock-pot all day every day as Frank found fancier, ever more novel ways to boil chicken and onions, beans and peppers, beef and pork sausages and beer and celery and leafy greens, Margery could keep hardly anything down.

“What are you going to do with the bag?” Margery said, bringing Frank back to the immediate problem of the half-drained load, slippery with soap.
“Oh, this,” Frank said, heaving the bag up so that it threatened to split at the seams. “Well, I’ve been thinking about it and I have a plan.”
“Do you, now? Well, that’s a surprise.”
“Watch this.”

When Frank came to Skyhorse as a young man, the name of the place sang in his ears. His first job in the country was at the rodeo grounds, and he earned his horse there, named for the town, on a bit of a fluke.

Everyone knew him as a good hand—not that anyone was about to give him a horse. The kind of work he was doing wouldn’t let him save enough to buy one soon, but he was a good hand and got along well with the boarded horses, if not always with the people—seemed whenever he spoke to a Skyhorse native there would be a little skip in the conversation, like they had to take a moment to translate what he’d said into their own way of understanding, like the language he’d assumed he had in common with them was only superficially the same. When Skye’s owner lost him to the rodeo stables by defaulting grievously on his fees, Frank begged them not to auction off the horse. He had little hope, but figured at first that his way with horses might tip the balance in his favor.

Let me make an offer, he said. I’ll work off the cost.

He made an offer that was more than he could afford, and they made the deal, although they grumbled that they could’ve got more selling the horse in farther-off horse country. Everyone around here knows that horse is bad luck, they told Frank. That’s how the owner lost him. He should’ve never named him after the town. It’s a bad luck name.

The legend of Skyhorse, they said, did not end well. Frank knew the story: it was about a half-breed horse-man who tried to make horses equal to humans. He could also fly. In the typical manner of legends, the power of flight only earned him a fantastic death, shot out of the sky during a righteous battle and remembered ever after with regret and superstition. Don’t renege on a promise to anyone less fortunate, Skyhorse’s eye was on you, Don’t mistreat a horse, Skyhorse would take revenge. He was still flying around keeping tabs on things, and his hooves were poised to strike down the cruel and stingy. Yes, everyone having to do with horses in that country made sure Frank knew the story, even though he was in no position to be cruel or stingy to anyone. But Frank also knew that the owner lost the horse because of gambling debt—probably won him on a bet to begin with. And being a half-breed himself, Frank savvied Skye’s name to be the opposite of bad luck. Frank was already broke. Whatever had been the bad luck of the horse’s former owner, Frank didn’t think it would stick to him.

Frank rode Skye in some rodeos and won some prize money. Meanwhile, someone in town figured out he’d been a cabinet-maker as well as a budding rider back home, and he started getting regular work that beat the corral pay by about a thousand a month. He didn’t quit the corral—he loved the horses too much—but he paid off Skye in months, instead of years, and rented a house in town.

People muttered about Skyhorse’s curse all the time behind his back, and sometimes brought it up to his face, peering at him as if he were about to sprout horns. When he finally got hurt too bad to ride again, the mutters died away, and that was worse—it meant people thought he’d got what he’d asked for, but were too smug to tell him so. Like they’d known all along the bad luck would come full circle. Frank understood then that the rodeo people hadn’t sold him the horse because they liked him. They’d sold him Skye because they wanted a way to mark him.

The first person he’d met coming out of the hospital had been Margery, a girl he knew well from the corrals, a Skyhorse native with a gaze that made him understand, for the first time, why arrows and hearts got carved into stone together in the first lovers’ declaration.

Ho there, Cowboy, she’d said. She’d come to warn him that speculators were already sniffing around Skye’s stall, figuring they’d get him at a good price and sell him abroad. Don’t sell him, she finished. I’ve seen you ride. You guys are a beautiful team.

He shook his head. They tell me I’m not going to be riding again.

She shook her head back at him. Maybe not in the rodeo, she said. But if you let that crap about a mythical horse-man get to you I’ll walk right out of your life and I’ll take that horse with me.

Frank began to say that he didn’t know Margery had ever walked into his life. Then it occurred to him that she’d been there all along—having a glass of whatever was on tap after closing up the stables for the night, talking horses, talking not-horses, planning a life in town, because, she said, I would never have said it a year ago, but maybe I don’t want to think about nothing but horses all my life. He’d been too closed-up to see her that way because, with all the jealousy and suspicion and bad-luck theories that had sprung up between Skyhorse and him after his purchase of Skye, he’d never gotten over feeling like an outsider.

He said to Margery, In that case, let’s not sell the horse.

He must’ve proposed to her in some other way after that. Must’ve—but all he remembered clearly, for sure, was that Margery took his hand and marched him off to the rodeo stables to confirm his claim on Skye. And at some point much later on, still holding on for dear life, they’d marched down the aisle.

Frank considered, from time to time, whether Margery had to step out of Skyhorse a little bit to be with him, a half-breed from away, or whether being with her made it easier for him to step in, made the walls between him and Skyhorse seem insubstantial, easy to pass through. He always concluded that those concerns should be least on his mind. Neither he nor his wife were like anyone else in the known world. Whatever the world’s understanding of blessings and curses, none of it could stick to them.

“I’m watching,” Margery said, easing back into her lawn chair.

Frank plopped the doubled bag onto the blacktop patch, ran the hose into it, and let it overflow.

“Rinse cycle,” he said. He turned his eyes up to Margery’s, making sure she was smiling. She was, but she was almost ready to retire. “I say this for the benefit of those who might not be familiar with the modern washing machine.”
“I appreciate that,” she said, taking a sip of her smoothie.

When the water ran clear Frank tied a knot in the neck. He picked up the bag, and it was so dead-white, so taut with ice-cold hose water, that he almost said something about a witch’s tit in mid-July, but didn’t think it was something Margery would laugh at.

He dug his keys out of his pocket.

“Drain,” he said.
With his keys he tore a ragged hole in the double bag. The water spilled out so cold that it hurt his knuckles.
“Ready for this, now? This is the grand finale.”
“I’m ready for anything, Cowboy.”

“Spin,” he said. He grabbed the knot two-fisted and begin to spin, expecting clean water to spray from the hole, intending to speed up and go until it was just a spray of diamonds, even if it destroyed his back. Instead, his Carhartts tore through and dropped. The blacktop, gritty from thunderstorm runoff, steamed around them.

Margery burst out laughing so hard Frank was afraid he’d gone too far. But when he glanced up to take a look at her, he thought he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her cheeks so pink, her eyes so soft.

He dropped his gaze and shook his head to hide his own smile. “Stace is going to have a field day with this story.”

“What’re you going to do now, Cowboy?” Margery sighed, leaning back and closing her eyes.
“Don’t you worry, Mama,” he said, easing down to gather the draggled load. “I’ll just start over, like I always do.”

About the Author:

Donna Lee Miele lives and writes in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in |tap| litmag, Atticus Review, Ms. Aligned 3, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of River River Writers’ Circle.