Craig Dennis, a writer raised in Mississippi now living in France shared this memory with me. He came to New York over the summer. We met at a bar under the Brooklyn Bridge, drank beer and ate calamari. Then we went up to Chelsea Piers and had more beer on the deck of a moored yacht on which his son had worked.
Craig told me he’d been trying to record his memories growing up in Mississippi. Then he sent me “Stormy.”
I named her that because she was born one warm February night in one of those Mississippi storms that is so violent and so wet and so electric that only fear for my own young life could keep me inside instead of out in our pasture where she was being born. Her mamma was Audrey, my Icelandic pony.
Her daddy was Red, a cocky and insolent four-year old red stallion with a pure white face.
Red belonged to Alan Jackson, our savage fourteen-year old neighbor, the third son in the family of Missouri sharecroppers who worked our farm. Alan was quick and fierce with a face like a knife and long blond hair that ran like strands of precious metal down over his shoulders onto the middle of his back. Always shirtless, his skin was impossibly white until the sun burned him red like his horse.
Not exactly like his horse, who was the color of electric rust, but bright red, like a fire engine or a warning.
Together, the horse and the boy were inseparable and seemingly invincible like a red, two-headed, blond-maned Minotaur. Alan and Red were wild, frightening and beautiful.
I was told that Alan even slept next to Red in our old barn at night. Alan’s younger brothers Henry and Richard and I always just hid when we saw them coming.
Alan’s daddy, Ralf, shot the horse in a drunken rage one night when Alan “talked back” one time too many. Alan ran away before dawn, and we never ever saw him again. Ever.
He was the first person I knew who disappeared.
A few days after the horse murder, Ralph set himself on fire changing a fuel filter while smoking a cigarette under his old truck. In a flash, the ancient Chevy log truck was consumed by the flames. If his brother Leonard hadn’t been there to grab his legs and pull him out, Ralf would have died right there. The Chevy was a total loss, leaving him no way to finish harvesting even if his hands and arms hadn’t been burned up.
When Ralf came home from the hospital, my momma and I went over to take a casserole to poor Juanita, his quiet, constantly working, never complaining wife. I saw Ralf in the front room, propped up on a grimy colorless bed with his L-shaped arms wrapped in immaculate bandages. The pure white cotton of those bandages struck me as alien in the Jackson family’s filthy old house. Huge, white bandage mittens made his bent arms look like Q-tips sticking straight up from the bed with bright spots of blood on his palms and forearms.
He was trying and failing to smoke a cigarette that someone had poorly rolled for him.
Ralf was a mean and unpredictable man. I was just a boy and I’d always been afraid of him until that moment.
There he was, helpless and ruined. Though I mimicked the gravitas shared by the other adults, all I could think was how great this was. That there was some Justice in the world. Ralf was in agony and it thrilled me to see him whimper in pain and watch his futile efforts to take a drag on that hopeless and failed, hand-rolled Prince Albert from a can. I went outside for fear of not being able to hide my glee. I knew then that my pleasure was a sin, and I know it now. But the knowing and believing that somehow the spirit of that beautiful young red stallion was somehow responsible for the fire has forever since been a sweetness that I hold close to my heart. His ghost could make the wind blow on our farm.
Over the next months I watched Stormy grow into a tall, red girl copy of her father.
Sassy and unbreakable by meanness.
Only approachable with Love.