It's been an All Things Considered Thanksgiving tradition since 1991— a Bailey White original short story. Over the years, White's stories have included tales about a rose queen, a telephone man, an ostrich farmer and a wife exacting revenge. This year, White presents "The Wedding Horse." It's a tale about a life-changing relationship between a young house painter and an older woman.
Makarova Viktoria via iStockphoto.com
Makarova Viktoria via iStockphoto.com
Mrs. Soffit was 85 years old and living alone in her old family house on Fletcher Street when she decided the ceilings were dingy and needed to be painted. She found a young man down at the courthouse wanting day work. Judge Altman spoke up for him; he had a drinking problem, lost his driver's license, but he had been sober for a year, and he had done a good job on Mrs. Altman's gazebo. But Mrs. Soffit hired him because he had good looks. He had a handsome bony face and an aquiline nose and a way of cutting his eyes that reminded her of Col. Tim McCoy from the old cowboy movies. He was tall and lean, and he had to fold himself up to get in the car beside her, like a grasshopper.
"You still all right to drive?" he asked.
Mrs. Soffit's house was an old ramshackle Queen Anne, a house so well known in its day that it was called by its street number, 12. But Mrs. Soffit was not housified, and very little had been changed at No. 12 since the bathrooms were added in the '20s.
The painter acted very familiar with the house, opening doors and walking right into rooms that had not been entered for years, looking up at the ceiling thoughtfully with his mouth open. One of his front teeth was missing.
At last they sat down in the kitchen. "A thousand dollars," he said. "Plus the paint." The painter was getting married. His girlfriend wanted everything to be perfect for the wedding day, and $1,000 was the cost of a new front tooth.
"That sounds like a fair price," said Mrs. Soffit.
"Let me ask you just one thing," the painter said. He poked with his foot at a hole burned in the floor where a piece of firewood had rolled out of the stove before the gas heaters had been put in. "Why do you want to paint the ceilings?"
"Because they are dingy," said Mrs. Soffit.
"I'm taking my colors from nature, blue and white, beach colors. That's blue for the sea and sky, and white for the sugar-sand beach." This was the painter's girlfriend Amber, planning her beach wedding.
Courtesy Bailey White
Bailey White has been creating original Thanksgiving stories for All Things Considered since 1991.
Courtesy Bailey White
"What do you want on this sandwich, Howard, American or Swiss cheese? Do you want onion on it? And Howard? I want you to ride on a horse, a big white horse. And Howard, have you been to the dentist about your tooth?"
She was right; the painter could look as good on a big white horse as Robert Redford ever did, except for two things: his missing front tooth, and he had never been on a horse in his life. He tried to explain that.
"These horses don't bite, Howard. They are highly trained horses from Steve's Rent-an-Animal. Oh, and we're going to have birds, doves that fly up when our vows are exchanged, trained white doves. What do you want on this sandwich, Howard?"
Amber worked at Subway, and any sandwich that got discarded during her shift she brought home. After several days, there were almost infinite choices for a bologna sandwich.
"The birds are free if you get the horse," she said.
Howard had thought Amber was just as cute and sweet as she could be when he was still drinking and she was bartending at McFeelys. One thing led to another, and after his third DUI, she moved him into her house and took care of him. Now here he was, sober one year, with no car, no license, no front tooth, and she was about to put him up on a horse and marry him.
Howard lolled his head back on the sofa pillows and closed his eyes. His neck ached from looking up at Mrs. Soffit's ceilings all day, and he had plaster dust under an eyelid. In the morning he had rolled up rugs and dragged all the big, heavy furniture into the middle of the rooms, and in the afternoon he had spread drop cloths and scraped and sanded the ceiling, up and down Mrs. Soffit's rickety ladder. Now Amber's cheap discount store furniture felt flimsy and insubstantial, as if it might drift up and float away.
From the television Alex Trebek said "... ornate furniture style mixing prismatic rustications and ornamental details of scrolls, straps, and lozenges."
"Howard? Howard? Do you want cucumber on it?"
"Jacobean," muttered Howard.
Painters used to wear neat white clothes, but he wore clothes of any color, mostly rags. It took three trips to get all his equipment over to her house — drop cloths, buckets, rollers, brushes, roller pans, extension poles; and then to Ace for the paint. Mrs. Soffit liked driving him because it kept her bad side away from him, the side where her top lip sometimes got stuck up on a tooth. She knew how she looked when that happened, like a snarl.
Mrs. Soffit liked the way he sat very still in the car. Even his hands and feet didn't move, as if he took advantage of every moment he wasn't working to rest.
The first day, he brought a pitiful little sandwich in a greasy bag and sat down on the back steps to eat it, but the second day she made a meatloaf and then stuffed peppers, and they ate together on a slate-topped table on the back porch, away form the paint fumes and plaster dust. She propped up a book between them and pretended to read so he couldn't see her difficulties with chewing.
On the third day, sitting down to his plate of squash casserole, he made a joke about the squeaky ladder. He gave it a name, "Little Birdy," and she laughed, holding her fingers across her mouth. All he could see was the back of her book, a guide to insects showing an iridescent green and red dung beetle with a horn and clawed legs.
That night watching Jeopardy, Howard said, "You know, in three days that old woman has never said a word. She don't talk about the color, she don't talk about the money, she don't talk about the time. She just reads about bugs and eats."
Over at No. 12, Mrs. Soffit turned on the porch light, took a broom and brushed down cobwebs and swept up shriveled frogs that had come into the porch and died in the dust. She wiped off the shelf ledge with ammonia and water, then mopped the floor and swept the steps.
He noticed the next day at lunch. He smiled his gap-toothed smile. "You cleaned up!" he said. He looked at the chairs and the table, wiped clean, then he looked down into the yard where an old herringbone brick walkway buried in leaves led from the porch steps straight out to the backyard. He moved the chairs from the way she had them, facing each other across the table. He put one at the head of the table looking out and one at the side. Then he stepped back and looked out the screen door. He took the broom and walked down the walkway, briskly sweeping from side to side. He dragged an old flower pot out from the shed and set it up on four bricks at the end of the walk. Then he came back to the steps, sighted down to the flower pot, went back out and put two cast iron bench frames facing each other across the walkway. Just that little thing made a remarkable change; instead of a straggly, abandoned path it became a long view from the porch, almost a vista.
"That will give you something to look at when you get tired of the bugs," he said.
That night Amber was comparing fabric swatches, holding them up against her face in front of the bathroom mirror. She called, "Howard, I talked to Dr. Robin. It's very simple. He will build a permanent bridge, and the new tooth will perfectly match the tooth you've already got. Now what do you think of this, the shantung or the peau de soie? What do you think, Howard? You have to say. You have to have ownership, Howard. I read an article on it. The groom won't be committed, this article said, unless he has ownership in the ceremony."
The next day Mrs. Soffit didn't prop the book up between them. She sat at the head of the table looking down the little vista, and he sat at her good side.
"I don't want to ride to my wedding on a horse," he said.
"A horse?" she said.
"She thinks about it all day up at Subway making sandwiches, and every night she comes home she's added another animal to the wedding. I'm scared of horses," he said.
"There's nothing to fear about riding a horse," said Mrs. Soffit. "Why, I have ridden an ostrich."
It was the longest she had ever talked. "Yes," she said. "Back in the '20s when Mr. Elmore had the old Elmsley place out on the Barnet Road, he had a kind of menagerie out there, several kinds of African asses and exotic birds. When my father died and my mother was poor-mouthing all over town, Mr. Elmore took pity on me and thought he would give me a thrill by letting me ride an ostrich. All of Mr. Elmore's charitable feelings were satisfied by the sight of me clinging for dear life to the back of that bird as it loped around and around the paddock. But the ostrich had been shaved; it was all over prickles, and I was wearing just a little cotton dress and pinafore. It was excruciating, but I couldn't ask to get down for fear of hurting Mr. Elmore's feelings."
"They can each choose their own dress," said Amber. "Any style, any length, they just have to be a shade of light blue. Jenny, Lauren, Cailey and Morgan can be bridesmaids, but not Emily, because a fat bridesmaid stands out, especially in light blue. Now what about your tooth? Has Mrs. Soffit paid you anything? Aren't you about halfway through? You might better go ahead and make the appointment. I asked Dr. Robin; he'll take installments."
"She rode a shaved ostrich," said Howard.
Summer ended and they had the first cool days. Mrs. Soffit bought two pots of bronze chrysanthemums and put them on each side of the brick walkway, beside the benches. Howard finished the stair hall, then the front parlor, and the bed parlor and the dining room.
Every time he finished a room and moved on to the next, Mrs. Soffit came in with the broom and dustpan and a bag of rags. He helped her get the furniture back in place. Sometimes he rearranged things.
In the front parlor he said, "That secretary sitting between the windows blocks the light," and in the upstairs hall he said, "You've got all the heavy stuff on one wall." He put a little Queen Anne table between the windows, and she found a candlestick lamp to put on it and hung the picture of Uncle Lewis over the table beside the lamp. He put the secretary on the opposite wall across from the windows so the green of the viburnum hedge reflected in its old glass doors.
The familiarity that grew through the shared work made Mrs. Soffit talkative. She told him about a vinegar worm she once found in the sand at Jensen Beach, and she talked about a Miss Harper who had lived next door in the '30s and was said to be a prostitute. Miss Harper would lie in bed all day draped in a marabou stole, eating a kind of candy called "chicken bones" with an electric fan blowing on her, the first electric fan Mrs. Soffit had ever seen.
"I used to sit here for hours and peek out this window," said Mrs. Soffit. "The way that electric fan would ruffle that marabou stole, it was the most luxurious thing I ever saw in my life. I told my mother when I grew up I wanted to be a prostitute." Mrs. Soffit laughed, covering her mouth with her fingers.
On the first cold day, Mrs. Soffit brought in the Eucharist lily. She got down her mother's gold-rimmed tea set, and at four o'clock they sat in the dining room and had tea under the gleaming new ceiling.
"When is your wedding day?" Mrs. Soffit asked.
"Not till I get my thousand-dollar tooth," said Howard. "Everything has to be perfect."
"What about the horse?" she asked.
"She's paying for the horse," Howard said. "She's paying for the horse, she's paying for the birds, she's paying for the dress. I'm just paying for the tooth."
"But can you ride a horse?" asked Mrs. Soffit. "I know what. I'll drive you out to McIntyres on Saturday. You ride one of those horses around a little bit, get used to it before your wedding day." McIntyres was a riding academy with trails through the woods, riding rings, a greenway. Mrs. Soffit called and reserved a horse for Saturday.
But she quickly saw that Howard was not Col. Tim McCoy from the old cowboy movies, or even Robert Redford. Everybody at McIntyres could see that. Up on a horse, all the grace and dignity that came so naturally in his stride, in his way of sitting, or climbing up and down a squeaky ladder, disappeared. Sitting on a horse, he looked like a baby bird fallen out of its nest, all feet and knees in the wrong places. Teenage girls put down their currycombs and stared and snickered. Even the horse, uncertain and bewildered, snorted and staggered sideways under its strange load.
"Get down off that horse!" Mrs. Soffit called. "You are going to have to walk to your wedding."
"What does Mrs. Soffit know about it?" Amber demanded. "This is not an old broke-down horse from McIntyres. This is a highly popular, specifically trained wedding horse! You tell Mrs. Soffit we don't need any help planning our wedding! Aren't you almost through over there? How long can it take to paint those ceilings?"
The day before Thanksgiving, it turned cold. Mrs. Soffit vacuumed out the vents and turned on the furnace at No. 12, a yearly event she usually dreaded because it meant a whole winter shut up in her old mess of a house. But Howard had finished up the day before. He had put the squeaky ladder back in the shed and shoved the last of the furniture back in place. He hung the convex mirror not over the mantelpiece where it had always been, but across from a west-facing window so that now, at dusk, the room was filled with a reflected pink light. At the kitchen table, Mrs. Soffit counted out money from a bank envelope: ten hundred-dollar bills, then twenty tens — "for your extra work," she said. She drove Howard home, made herself a simple supper, and then opened all the interior doors and turned on all the lamps. She sat up for a long time listening to the whoosh of the furniture fan.
A noise waked her up long before dawn — a scratching and then a rattling from the back porch. She put on her slippers and a fleece robe and hurried down the dark hall. She peeked out.
"Howard?" she said. It was freezing cold, but Howard didn't look cold. His face had the soft, lost, dreamy look of an alcoholic gone back to drinking after a long dry spell.
"It just went on and on and on," he said. He smiled the sweetest smile. It spread all across his face. Then he closed his eyes, chuckled to himself, lost his balance and sank gracefully to the porch steps, where he sat leaning up against the door jamb, looking down the vista past the bronze chrysanthemums, their tips just beginning to drop, past the two benches. But the end of the vista was in darkness, and the long view appeared to stretch on forever into that silky night.