When you’ve got a pile of horse plop riding shotgun instead of your best girl, you know it was bad. Worse than bad. It was like cutting into a New York strip and seeing maggots slide off the knife.
Okay, so it was bad. Caroline was probably not going to be the next Mrs. Horace D. Lennox. And it started out so sweet.
If you knew the difference between the brake and accelerator, things might have worked. Instead of running over her cat and skidding through her horse barn, you might have been offered a warm kiss.
Think, Horace, think. What went wrong?
Idiot brother-in-law, that’s what. Thought he could teach you to drive in one lesson. Maybe, if his brain were bigger than a deer tick and he wasn’t half-loaded most days. Maybe, if he knew how important it was to you.
Okay, so you’re a butcher, and a damned fine one. Could have run for mayor back in ’08 and won, that’s how respected you are. Folks trust you to sell them the best cuts, even if the cow isn’t decent stock. You’ve prepared pigs and deer and once even a goat, and no one’s complained. But drive a Mitsubishi through a parking lot without getting a belly ache? Nope, wasn’t going to happen.
You own a nice house within walking distance of your shop, a summer lawn so green it could pop your eyes out. You’re a friend indeed to the neighbors. Who needs to drive when everything is a sidewalk away from where you lay your head?
Once word gets out that you’re a fool behind the wheel, you’re done. You’ll be the town chump. A man who doesn’t know the difference between his left foot and right can’t be trusted with carving the meat for folks’ supper tables.
Or you could blame Caroline. She’s the one with a taste for cow tongue. That’s why she came to your shop. A fresh tongue is not a thing you can pick up at the A&P or Save-A-Lot. And, oh, you could go on for hours about recipes and preparations and spices. And when she told you her favorite meal was cow tongue with a little oregano and a few peppercorns….
So go ahead, Horace. Go ahead and blame it all on the woman you wanted to marry.
“So you like her?” asked Bobby.
“Because you’ve never shown no interest in driving before.”
“I like her.”
“She’s a fine looking woman. Could stand to lose a few pounds, but hey, I hope it works.”
“I like her.”
So many things to remember. Adjust your seat. Check the mirrors. Remember, it’s not the cockpit of a Boeing, just a rusty ’98 sedan. Give it gas with the right foot, brake with the left, and watch the road. Steer, don’t aim. Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been, but make sure you check your mirrors, and watch your blind spot. If you’re going to play the radio, make sure it’s honky tonk or oldies rock-and-roll, not fancy-ass jazz or worse, New Age crap, that stuff will put you to sleep. And relax, Horace. It ain’t rocket science, it’s just a car, and it’ll take you from here to there, no problem. And it ain’t even a stick, so you don’t have to think hard about it. Look here, you don’t even have your seatbelt on straight.
Took Caroline three visits before you had the nerve to ask her out. She always ordered the same thing: three pounds of ground round, six butterfly chops, and a fresh cow tongue. Not even embarrassed about it. You order tongue, most people think you’re strange. They don’t know how to prepare it and they look at you curious if you tell them it can be as tender as a good brisket. Truth is, she was the one who asked you to cook for her. Shyness was not one of Caroline’s qualities.
“I’ll bet you cook up a nice tongue,” she said.
“I have prepared a few.”
“My former husband, Mr. Pollard, couldn’t abide by it. He said he didn’t want to taste anything that could taste him back. The best thing about his passing is that I can now enjoy a good tongue whenever I want.”
Do you remember how you blushed?
“I usually prepare it for Saturday night supper,” she said. “Maybe we could sit down together and enjoy a plate. If you’re free.”
You said you were. All you had to do was learn how to drive in three days.
“That cow ain’t necessarily going to move just because you’re coming at it,” said Bobby. “You might want to slow down. I prefer my steaks not to have Goodyear treads running through them.”
Caroline lived three miles out of town, down a narrow stretch of road called the Old 89. Bobby said a frog with bad eyesight could drive that road without problem. “You watch for deer and uncareful animals, and you’re set. And try not to slide into a tree. Uh, you might want to go easy on the gas, there, Horace. That fence might not care, but the tractor beside it might.”
You packed the tongue in an ice cooler and checked the tires, like Bobby said. You didn’t see the point, it was only three miles, and you timed it so there’d be nobody else on the road. You dropped off a bottle of Jim Beam at Bobby’s house and he watched you adjust your mirror (for the third time) and straighten your safety belt. He knuckled the side of the door as you drove off a steady five miles per.
“First rule of driving is to trust nobody,” said Bobby. “You might be the best driver in the world, but if the other guy thinks he’s Dale Earnhardt, you’re gonna be run off. It’s all about attitude. Treat the other guy like an idiot and you’ll be okay.”
Probably made sense, but what if the other guy was a raccoon and didn’t care how you drove? Or a pony grazing the side of the road?
“Steady, Horace, steady,” Bobby would say. “Worry when there’s cause.”
So you drove slow. Even started to get a feel for it. You had a pound-and-a-half of fresh cow tongue on ice, a full tank of gas, and the world was an open road scudding by.
Caroline’s place was a quarter mile off a four-way stop, big old farm house on the left. You could tell it was hers by the yellow barn and the scar-tissue lawn. She said it was scorched from too much fertilizer and she never could get the proper color back.
She didn’t mention she had cats. Lots of cats. As many stars there were in the sky, that’s how many cats were roving her driveway. Or maybe there were four. But they all seemed to have an appetite for raw Mitsubishi. Pillaging and plundering, they advanced, and your flimsy confidence peeled away.
What kind of woman chemically burns her front lawn, you wondered. And has guard cats soldiering the driveway? What kind of–
One of the cats ignored your fluttering hand signals and zigged not ten feet away. In your head, you touched the brakes lightly. In reality, you slammed the pedal like it was growing spider legs. Though you were safely harnessed, your cooler was not. It toppled forward, distributing ice and twelve inches of cow tongue onto the floor. Some of the ice became lodged under the brake pedal. You were not aware of this.
For one horrifying moment, you thought one of the cats had somehow grown into a horse – a full-sized Belgian, pretty color, maybe even purebred – and you and common sense parted ways.
You hit the brake in earnest, pounded it like a flank steak, but to no effect. You thought it was the wrong pedal, so you thumped the other one. You had a brief moment of clarity when your peripheral vision became blurry. The horse barn eclipsed the driveway. You went back to the brake pedal, crushed some ice, and the car slid sideways, barely missing the hind end of Mister Horse, who showed his appreciation by defecating in the open passenger window. You thought you could hear a weak “meow” under your bumper.
“Remember to use your turn signals,” said Bobby. “Nobody else does, but the cops will pull you over if they catch you making a turn without ’em. And don’t be afraid to use your horn. That’s what it’s there for, to let ’em know you mean business.”
You tooted the horn, in case no one noticed your entrance. It was a silly thing, really, but you were preoccupied running down the list of things you could have done, should have done, but didn’t do. You couldn’t recall Bobby telling you, “if a horse takes a dump in the seat beside you, honk your horn. That’s what it’s there for, to let him know you mean business.”
And so you just sat there, the heel of your hand on the horn, while a large draft horse rubbed his flank against the passenger door. You should have been upset, but you couldn’t really blame him.
When you’re chased out of barn by a woman brandishing a pitchfork and yelling in octaves you didn’t know were audible outside the canine family, you consider it a done deal. You could have offered her the cow tongue as a parting gift, as a “can we still be friends” gift, but that didn’t seem right. It was spattered with horse manure, anyway. You offered to pay for damages to her barn. If you threw in a kitten or two, it might have made a difference.
Instead, you put the car in reverse. Or what you thought was reverse. It wasn’t reverse. It was neutral. And when you accelerated….
It’s best to put that out of your mind.
So rather than a robust meal with the future missus, the night ended with a can of unnaturally orange ravioli over the kitchen sink, Manilow in the background.
That was last summer, and you haven’t been laughed out of town. No one has dropped by to offer you the job as mayor, and probably no one ever will. You know folks laugh behind your back, and sometimes not behind it. But you’re still a damned fine butcher and folks respect a man for his talents. You’ve lost no custom that you’re aware of. Probably helped business in the long term, what with the gossipers and idly curious.
A woman came into the shop yesterday afternoon. She’s new to town and probably hasn’t heard about you in the coffee shop or supermarket. Pretty woman, with kind, sparkly eyes and dimples that light up her face.
She asked if you sold Cornish game hens. Fresh ones were impossible to find, and she had a powerful taste for them.
You told her you could get them for her at a reasonable price, probably within two or three days. She smiled like a bird-eating angel. She just bought a small farm house she shared with her daughter, you probably know the place, just five miles out Dumphrey Road, right next to the old Methodist church. It was an easy drive, she said. She rested her hand on yours for a moment.
“Do you enjoy a good hen, Mr. Lennox?” she asked.