One night, while drunk on wine, I lost my wife's sleeping bag. I left it somewhere. And though I'd never noticed her sleeping in it she told me she wanted it back. There was a history attached to it. It had sentimental value. Squinting at me with great seriousness, she asked, "Sentimental is a word, no?" She did not speak English well at the time.
I was in the back of a van, a red van, and the sleeping bag was under my arm, a bottle of wine in my hand. My wife was visiting her mother in Budapest. It was Joe's van. I was perched on a bale of hay in the back, swigging wine out of the bottle, and the van was going somewhere in the dark, jouncing all over the road. There were no windows. The sleeping bag was on the floor. That was the last time I saw it.
Who knows where we were going but I remember my wife calling while we were en route. She leaves me her phone whenever she goes away. I refuse to get a phone of my own because I don't want people calling me all the time. Usually I don't even pick up the phone in the house. I just let it ring, and sometimes people appear at the door afterward and ask why I didn't answer. When my wife is away, however, I always answer. The phone makes it easier to suffer these long periods of separation.
She and her mother were at a bar. I could hear some people behind her shouting in their own complex language. I'd been drinking for quite a while by then—a few beers and a bottle of wine—and it struck me as miraculous that my wife could understand what those people were saying. I told her this. Then I told her I was sitting on a bale of hay in the back of Joe's van, drinking wine, rocketing through the dark. Her familiar laughter came out of the phone when she understood that I was drunk. I have no memory of how the conversation proceeded after that.
The van was full of hay because Joe kept a thoroughbred racehorse in his backyard. It was an impressive animal and everybody who lived nearby knew the horse or had at least heard stories about its antics. Strangers came from miles around just to have a look. The horse's skin was stretched so tight you could see the outline of almost every muscle in its body. Even its snout was muscular. It always looked as if someone had just given it a huge shot of amphetamines as it pranced around anxiously in the little yard, snorting loudly and kicking the cobblestones out of the garden path.
For some mysterious reason the horse liked to stand in the flower garden. Maybe he enjoyed the view from the hill or maybe he just liked the smell of the flowers. Who knows? But he would stand in the garden until great mountains of aromatic horse-shit fouled every flowerbed. The gardeners, of course, were in a state of perpetual exasperation. They complained about the horse interfering with their work but there was really nothing Joe could do without getting rid of the horse altogether. In any case, Joe preferred not to get involved. He told the gardeners it was a problem that existed between them and the horse.
So a contest ensued as the gardeners vied with the horse for control of the garden while Joe, aloof as ever, watched it all from a distance. Whenever I stopped in for a visit he was standing on the back porch surveying the scene, a cup of steaming coffee in his hand. Barricades went up everywhere but the horse leapt them all with aristocratic aplomb, hardly deigning to notice them. Routinely he would back himself up to some flimsy structure which the gardeners had erected to keep him out of the flowerbeds and, with obvious premeditation, casually extend a back leg, as if for a stretch, and topple the thing over. The gardeners would chase after him like two irate rodeo clowns until they had the animal corralled in his stable and the door padlocked behind him.
One afternoon the horse decided to jump the perimeter fence and chase a passing car into town. He was a racehorse, after all. He needed to run. The gardeners hopped into their car (Joe wasn't there) and sped after him. When they reached town, the horse was trotting fiercely up and down the main street and the townspeople were cowering in their doorways. Needless to say, the gardeners had no idea how to approach such a situation. The horse spotted them sitting in their car and trotted over to say hello. In high spirits, he reared up on his hind legs and punched two dents in the hood on his way down. Even the gardeners said it was an accident. In his excitement he had misjudged the distances. There was mischief in him, they said, but no malice. He cantered around the car a few times in nervous apology and then took off up the road. Nobody knew what to do.
Finally, seven or eight old farmers filed grimly out of the bar where they had been watching TV. With a display of spitting and swaggering and trouser-hoisting they encircled the animal, half-crouching and sort of dodging around with their arms spread wide. They all wore hats. A couple didn't even bother taking the cigarettes out of their lips. They let the smoke burn directly into their eyes as if this helped them see even better. The horse appeared stunned. The band of codgers inched up on him very professionally as if they had rehearsed this scenario a thousand times. No doubt the horse recognized the half-demented seriousness in their eyes because he calmed down immediately. In his own horse-brained way he understood that these men were perfectly capable of gunning him down right there in the road. So he let them capture him.
The farmers didn't carry lassos anymore (if they ever had) but that's the way the story was always told. The old men lassoed the horse in the street. It was like something out of a movie. They put the animal under arrest and marched him out of town and back into his stable. The townspeople were talking about it for months. Everybody had heard the story.
Again and again minor skirmishes broke out between the horse and the gardeners but the horse continually prevailed. He was a strong-willed animal. Over the course of that year the gardeners gradually transformed into stable hands. They started showing up for work in different clothes. Their professional nomenclature changed. They devoted more and more time to caring for the animal until they forgot that they had ever been gardeners at all. Joe paid them the same wage.
I drove out to Joe's house. As I turned into the driveway I saw the big rectangular head of the horse emerge from the barn window. Its nervous crazy horse-eyes watched me as I walked up the path to the house, the gravel crunching loudly under my boots.
Joe came out to greet me. He always saw you coming before you reached the door. He'd grown a full beard since the night we were driving drunk in his van. Where the hell had we gone that night? He told me his ulcer was acting up so he hadn't bothered to shave.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I said.
"I can't drink with an ulcer."
"You can't shave without a drink?"
"Something like that," he said. I had no idea what he was talking about.
"Joe," I began. "That sleeping bag I left in your van that night. I need it back."
"Oh-ho!" he laughed. He had an unpredictable sense of humor.
"It has sentimental value," I explained.
"It certainly has," he said. He nodded over my shoulder in the direction of the horse. Now I could see the blue sleeping bag hanging from its muscular snout. It was the same object that had been taking up space in my closet for so many years. It looked all right in the horse's mouth.
"He won't part with it," said Joe. "I took it away last week and he wouldn't eat. I guess it fulfills some deep psychological need of his."
"My wife got that sleeping bag when she was ten," I said.
"He drags it around everywhere now. I can't take him for a gallop on the beach without bringing the goddamn sleeping bag. It's his security blanket. He's only three years old, you know."
I went into the house and called my wife. Of all the times I had visited Joe, I had never actually been inside the house. We had always remained in the garage. He had a fridge and a coffeemaker and a few chairs out there so that it was just as good as being inside. If the need arose, we pissed on the compost heap. The house was exceptionally tidy, and you could tell he owned a horse. All the clothes and hats and reins and other paraphernalia that come along with the ownership of a horse were hanging on hooks in the hallway. My wife answered the phone.
"You got a letter," she announced. "It looks urgent."
"Don't open it," I said, suddenly fearful.
"Why not?" she asked. Now there was suspicion in her voice.
"I don't know. Open it if you want to. But listen, this horse can't live without the sleeping bag."
"What horse are you talking about now?"
"Now? As if I'm always bothering you about horses!"
"I'm sorry? There's a horse involved now?"
Light-years of interstellar space had already crept into her voice. My wife is a very attentive person—except for when she gets you on the telephone. Sometimes she completely forgets she is talking to you and just hangs up. It's as if her mind simply refuses to accept with any conviction that the noises coming out of the phone really do represent a human voice. I find it very strange.
She was busy doing something else, the phone wedged between her cheek and shoulder. I imagined her cutting a carrot into a pot of stew. She was always cooking something around that time of day. I could almost smell the paprika.
I explained the whole story about the van, the hay, the bottle of wine. I reminded her about the time she called from Budapest and I was drunk. She laughed at the memory of it. She said that her mother had thought it was funny, drinking wine in somebody's horsecart. Briefly I imagined my wife and her mother laughing about me in the streets of Budapest. Then I told her how the horse can't even go to the beach anymore without dragging her sleeping bag along. "It's his security blanket," I said. "He's only three."
"I once slept in that bag in the Pyrenees Mountains," she said.
"I'm sorry. It's my fault. Joe lets the horse nose around in the back of the van, nibbling the hay or whatever. Do horses eat hay?"
"I know nothing of barnyard animals."
"Anyway, he found your sleeping bag there."
"That's just like you," she said.
"What?" It was a phrase I had never heard her use.
"You lose something of mine not even to a human being but to an animal."
"It's a thoroughbred racehorse," I reminded her.
She stopped cutting up carrots and started laughing.
"Sometimes I don't understand your mind at all," she said through the laughter.
This struck me as unnecessarily severe. I apologized sincerely. How was I supposed to know that horses were such complicated creatures?
"Ah, forget the bag," she said. "Forget everything. Come home."
She hung up the phone. She didn't really mean ‘come home'. That was just something she said instead of saying ‘goodbye'. Maybe it was a literal translation from her own language. I don't know. She used to say it to everybody until I told her it sounded a little odd. She still said it to me as a kind of private joke we shared. Or maybe she really did want me to come home. Sometimes it was hard to tell.
Joe handed me a cup of coffee. It was strange to see him walking around in his kitchen. I had never associated Joe with domesticity. It even struck me as implausible that he should live in a house. For some reason I'd always thought of him as a retired sea-captain pining away for the mysteries of the sea. Of course I'd never told him this. I caught him wiping the table very discreetly where my coffee cup had left a ring.
The horse was out of the stable now and staring at us through the kitchen window. His breath was fogging up the glass.
"He does that a lot," said Joe.
"Maybe he wants to come in," I suggested.
Joe laughed nervously at the thought of the horse inside the house. The animal's eyes bulged wildly and rolled in their sockets as he watched us from the window. He twitched his ears a few times as if entreating us to join him outside. Then he went for a trot around the garden with my wife's sleeping bag in his teeth, appearing happily insane. The two gardeners chased after him with brushes.
I held the coffee cup in both hands for warmth and wondered whether my wife had ever had sex in that bag. She was no prude. Maybe she'd even lost her virginity in there. In the Pyrenees Mountains! And now, after so many years, here was the same sleeping bag dangling from the buck-toothed grin of a horse—the strange destiny of inanimate objects! I noticed that the horse had a startlingly enormous erection.
Joe was sweeping something off the floor behind me with a little hand-broom. I could see why I'd never been invited inside the house. Joe, a fanatic!
"Listen," I said, "you can keep the sleeping bag."
He stood up, hiding the broom behind his back.
"I'm relieved to hear you say that," he said.
"Well, I wouldn't want to break a horse's heart," I said, nodding out the window. Just then the horse galloped by with one of the gardeners clinging to his back, grappling him around the neck like a small child on a merry-go-round horse. Joe chuckled. The gardener's face was blurred with terror and the sleeping bag streamed alongside like a blue pennant flapping from a castle wall.
"Come on. Let's go back outside," said Joe, steering me toward the door. "There's a bottle of whiskey stashed in the garage."
"What about your ulcer?"
He stroked his beard. "To be honest with you, it's the only thing keeping me warm at night."
So we went outside and drank the bottle of whiskey while the horse stood in the garden with the sleeping bag hanging from its snout.
As I look back on this most minor of histories, I am almost certain that it was the horse's proclivity for standing in the flower garden that ultimately led to the loss of my wife's sleeping bag. I doubt if I would ever be able to convince a judge of this, but sometimes the strange half-grasped truths one arrives at by following the pathways of the imagination are more coherent than the stiff wooden truths of the courtroom.
Copyright © Kevin Spaide 2006. Title graphic: "Spotted" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2006.