by Alia Volz bio follows
One: Ain’t that a Kick?
Little Jon paused in the driveway to scrape a stubborn lump of manure off his boot. The sun hung close above the cliff, and Holly’s crooked little ranch house was backlit, the men on the porch thrown into shadow. Little Jon hadn’t expected the boss back yet, but sure as shit, there he was.
Holly stood from his corduroy armchair and gripped the sagging porch rail. “Where you been, kid? I mean to say, what the hell do I pay you for? I know it ain’t for being nowhere in sight.” He wore a blue windbreaker from the Turlock Livestock Auction, but had removed his hat, and his thinning hair stood awry.
A salty gust tried to steal Little Jon’s Stetson. He pulled the brim low. “I sat on that damn porch for hours,” he said sullenly. “No business.”
This was truth. He’d come to the barn straight after school and sat there with his dad Sid, just listening to the old man wheeze. Sixteen horses stood tied to the hitching post facing the Skyline traffic, leaning on this hip or that. No tourists, no cute couples, no fat families, no urban adventurers of any kind. On Monday, the 23rd goddamn day of March, 1996, no person in San Francisco wanted to ride a horse on the beach.
Little Jon had sat until his ass cheeks went numb, until boredom sucked his eyeballs dry. So when Sid shuffled inside to piss, Little Jon pilfered a True Blue and slipped out behind the barn to smoke at the cliff edge, watch the hang gliders float. Then he wandered next door to visit the cute blonde—though she never much gave him the time. It fucking figured Holly would return from auction while he was gone.
“I swear I’ve been right here all afternoon,” Little Jon said. “Tell him, Dad.”
Sid grunted, popped a cig from his pack, fired it up. “He was here. Until he wasn’t.”
Holly spat in the fire-hazard weeds. Then he laughed, flashing crows’ feet. “You go unload them horses from the trailer. They’re waiting especially for your skinny ass. I’m going to sit my butt down with the paper.”
Holly ran the auction down in Turlock one weekend a month. He sometimes hauled back bomb-proof nags to work on the rent string, or maybe a decent saddle horse to sell privately. “Bring anything besides dog meat?” Little Jon asked. He’d been saving, and was on the lookout for a good quarter horse.
“Doesn’t matter to you, does it? Shit. Go do some work.”
Little Jon unlatched the door of the stock trailer where two horses waited. They’d made a mess of the floorboards, a shit-piss bog. He untied the first, a swaybacked paint, and walked him through the ever-blowing wind to the corral where Holly’s thirty or so rent string horses lived. Snorting nervously, the paint edged into the herd. An old-timer called Buck lunged for his rump, teeth bared. That paint would lose a few chunks of fur. They always hazed the newcomers.
The remaining passenger was a big bay mare, standing at least 16 hands tall. Her coat was shaggy, like she’d come from a cold climate. Thick, round hindquarters and a muscular shoulder promised strength, maybe speed. The low-slung sun beaming through the bars striped the mare’s body in horizontal shadows. Her eyelashes shone gold in a stab of light. Little Jon held his hand out for her to sniff—a kindness he didn’t often concede. She accepted his scent calmly, as though she’d foreseen all of this—the teenage boy, the salt air. He scratched behind her ear and she tipped her head, showing him the right spot.
Little Jon walked her toward the corral, but changed his mind, and tied her to a hitching post instead. He entered the low white barn—in disrepair and mostly vacant—tossed four flakes of straw into a stall and fluffed them into a bed. He hand-skimmed the scum from the automatic water trough and loaded the feeder with two flakes of good alfalfa for the new mare. She didn’t belong in that herd.
Little Jon headed back to the house and vaulted up onto the porch, his boots thumping on the planks. He slouched onto a folding chair, cracked his knuckles and his neck.
“This shit’s going to kill us,” Holly was saying. A newspaper lay folded in his lap. He spat. “Ain’t my fault, but they’ll bend me over anyway. Believe that, yes sir.”
Sid grunted, scratched his stomach.
“What I want to know is why nobody called me in Turlock,” Holly said. “Don’t you fools read the paper? Little Jon, they teach you to read in that slacker school?”
“Page A-4.” Holly tossed the paper to Little Jon, upending an open can of chew that clattered by his feet. Nobody moved to pick it up. The wind stole the tobacco in seconds.
Little Jon skimmed the article. Arriving at a gory detail, he snorted.
“You think that’s funny,” said Holly.
“Well it ain’t our problem.”
“No? How about where that Safety Inspector swears he’ll make sure it don’t happen anywhere else? That’s our asses he’s talking about.” Holly tongued his chew. “This’ll raise hell, you wait.”
In the dead of night, Little Jon’s eyes opened upon the deep black of his windowless room in his family’s moldy South San Francisco flat. The toilet flushed, and female feet padded softly down the hallway. A mattress complained, then fell silent. Little Jon usually shared the room with Uncle Remo, but Remo was doing a three year stretch for slinging crank, so he had it to himself. In an odd way, he liked it less without Remo snoring and farting—or jabbering all night on a tear. Little Jon listened to his own breath, which made it hard to breathe. The sound of his heartbeat made him imagine dying.
He hadn’t thought much of the story in the paper, but now it reared up in the dark. Poseidon Ranch was a rental stables in Half Moon Bay, thirty miles down the coast. They offered beach rides, just like Oceanview. Late on Saturday night, a rent string horse had snapped a board in the old corral fence and gotten loose. He trotted up onto Highway One, no doubt kicking his heels and snapping his teeth at the taste of freedom.
The driver must not have comprehended the specter congealing from the fog. By the time the animal took stark shape, it was too late. The impact buckled the hood and flipped the horse onto the roof. Its hind leg shot through the windshield, the hoof lodging in the passenger’s brain. The driver, a bank teller called Ira Blatt, escaped with bruises and bad luck. His mother, Viola, was very dead.
Little Jon lay flat and gripped his sheets. His eyes felt like black holes, sucking at the darkness. He saw hoof and brain soup. He saw the old lady with her eyeballs popping out all over the place, one landing in her son’s lap. And the son just sitting there, his hands wrapped around the steering wheel, seeing the end of his peace.
Two: Completely Pink
When she first laid eyes on Mar Verde Stables, and Daddy told her this was Donovan’s new home, Jessica almost puked. Bad enough she had to change schools in the middle of junior high; her horse was moving to an equine slum. Some artistic genius had done Mar Verde’s barns peach with forest green trim, and the paint peeled in wormy strips. Puddles and rocks choked the arena. Not cute.
At least it was by the beach. She imagined riding in a bikini, like an ad for Club Med. Instead, she was squatting in Donovan’s stall, soaping mildew off his bridle. The weather was ruining the leather.
And this was the nice place. Oceanview Beach Rides, the horse rental ranch right next door, was a total horror show. The barn leaned over the cliff, just waiting for the next earthquake to put it out of its misery. Grass grew on the sagging roof. The rental horses lived in a cramped, muddy corral with a huge mountain of manure in the middle. No one bothered to groom them or remove their saddles between rides. The wranglers were busy sucking beer cans and cigarettes. Every horse deserved a little girl.
All that separated the two places was a rickety fence. It didn’t stop that creep Little Jon from climbing over to bug her all the time. He was like seventeen! Way too old for Jessica, who’d just turned thirteen. Plus he was a moron. People actually called him Little Jon to differentiate between him and a big fat wrangler named Big John—who looked like John Candy in a cowboy hat. They weren’t related—just two dorks with über-dorky names.
So when Little Jon swaggered into Donovan’s stall like some TV cowboy from a Bonanza rerun, his eyes all shiny with news, Jessica knew she wouldn’t like whatever he was going to say. She hung the bridle in her tack closet, and got out a curry, so she could groom Donovan for the second time. She wanted to feel his warmth.
Little Jon took off his hat, smoothed his oily hair, and put the hat back on. He hitched his jeans on his skinny hips. Then he talked. Oh God.
He took his time with the story, lingering over details like ribs snapped clean through the skin of the horse’s barrel, intestines sliding down the windows, the hoof in the old lady’s head.
“Just stop.” Jessica felt her cheeks and forehead flush. “You’re making it up.”
“Shit. Holly’s got the paper if you want to read it.”
“I don’t. It’s really disgusting.” She switched to Donovan’s other side, putting his solid body between them. Little Jon smiled with half of his mouth.
“Know what I’m gonna do sometime, princess? I’m gonna come out here at night and open up that gate. See how many fuckers I can kill on Skyline.”
“You’re so dumb.”
“Bam bam bam! Fuckin bodies everywhere.”
“I don’t care. People are fuckers.”
Jessica glared over the swoop of Donovan’s back. Little Jon’s acne looked especially gross, a fat whitehead on his chin begging to be popped. “Horses are innocent.”
Little Jon sucked his cheek and made a wet clicking sound. “Everybody does bad things, baby.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Fine, princess.” He darted behind Donovan and pinched Jessica’s butt. She flinched against the horse, who sidestepped out of the way.
“You’re scaring my horse.”
Squinting darkly, Little Jon raised his hand as if to backhand Donovan’s rump.
“Don’t!” Jessica smacked his hand with her rubber curry. Her forehead burned, her neck burned. No boy had ever touched her like that—and this creepy hick? “Get out of my stall.” A lump rose in her throat. “Right now!”
“You got a cute butt,” Little Jon said as he left. “Too bad you’re a snob.”
She rarely ventured across the fence, but this was important. The corral fence at Oceanview looked decrepit. What happened at Poseidon could happen there, too. She wanted to talk to the owner.
“Well look what the cat dragged in,” said Holly in his reedy auctioneer’s voice. He had the first handlebar mustache Jessica had ever seen.
“Muh,” offered Sid, who didn’t seem to talk. He had a silver bouffant and a face like a homeless guy, with a gummy pink nose. Little Jon sat at the far end of the porch, legs splayed. He smirked like he’d been expecting her. Big John was there too, slurping a beer.
“Can I talk to you, Holly?” Jessica asked.
“Sure, girlie,” he said, shooting Little Jon a look. “Pull up a seat.”
Jessica sat on a folding chair just off the porch. She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t start. Words that had been crowding her mind were suddenly gone. The men stared. Jessica looked at her hands.
Holly broke the silence. “Well they’re gonna have a law suit, that’s for damn sure. Shut ‘em right down,” he said, obviously picking up where he’d left off.
“There goes the competition,” said Little Jon.
“What they’ve got at Poseidon is an issue of an absentee owner running things from a distance. You’d need a crystal ball to keep track of what goes on. Me, I’m sitting right here. I got my own two eyes on the sons of bitches working for me,” he looked at Big John and Little Jon dramatically. “My own two eyes is what I’ve got.”
Big John piped up, “That’s what happens when you got nothing but Mexicans doing your labor. They don’t give a damn.”
They don’t give a damn, cause it ain’t their horses,” said Holly. “Ain’t their horses, ain’t their business. Don’t give a damn.”
“Pff, you got Pedro,” said Little Jon. “What the fuck about him?”
“Pedro ain’t Mex,” said Holly. “Ever ask him?”
“What the fuck’s the difference?” said Little Jon.
“Different country, for one. Different food, different government, different women—nice women. Had to travel farther to get here.”
Sid leaned forward on his knees, wincing. “Remember your blood, boy.”
Holly cackled like a hyena. “Well that’s right! You’re part Mexican, ain’t you? I always forget about that, you’re so damn pale.”
“Shit,” muttered Jon.
“Which part is it?” Holly chuckled. “The brains or the brawn?”
Jon grabbed his privates in a fist. “This part here’s pure nigger.” Grinning, he strode off the porch, leaving all the men in stitches. Except Sid, who just stared ahead, looking perturbed.
Jessica was way over her head. She padded towards the fence. “Where you going, girl?” Holly called. “No need to chase him. He’ll warm up to you.” This provoked another round of laughter.
She climbed the wobbly boards, her cheeks on fire to the point that it blurred her vision. She’d never get used to this place. When Daddy taught at Stanford—until he joined the HIV project six months ago—Jessica had kept Donovan at the university barn. She’d studied dressage under an Olympic silver medalist, and rode in a regulation dressage ring with woodchips the groundskeepers leveled twice a week, plus miles of maintained trails through the Palo Alto hills. The horses’ coats reflected the meticulous attention of professional stable hands.
Low fog breathed through the row of paddocks, leaving its chill on the metal bars. Jessica tucked her hands into the sleeves of her sweatshirt. She entered the warmer darkness of Donovan’s stall. His face buried in the feed bucket, only his gentle eyes acknowledged her return. Jessica wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her cheek to the soft windpipe, breathing in the familiar musk of his coat. She listened to him chew, and let his quiet kindness dissolve her anger.
Three: His Kind of Freedom
Little Jon squared his boot against the barn wall, wrapped his hands around the loosened board and pulled. He’d been prying apart the barn for an hour or so. He glanced up at the sound of boots in the dirt. Just Holly, checking on progress.
“It don’t make sense, Holly.”
“Just this part for now. We got to use something.”
“Can’t you get new wood?”
Holly rubbed his thumb and pointer finger together. “You tell me with what.”
“It can’t be that bad.”
“When that safety inspector comes, we’ll lose this place.”
“You can’t fix an old fence with old boards.”
“I’m going to watch you try.”
“Fuck it, then.” Little Jon wiggled the claw under a spongy 2 x 4 and levered it off with a crack. The whole wall shook.
“That’s more like it,” Holly laughed over his shoulder, already walking away.
Little Jon dug into the barn, letting his mind wander. It wandered right to little Jessica. Her blonde bangs and dimples, little ski jump nose. Yeah, she was a prude. But it was cute, fuzzy kitten cute, and kind of refreshing. When neighborhood girls were prudes, it was because they were scared of Jesus or their parents or some shit. But if you were a ho deep down and somebody scared you into putting on a prude front, it really was no different than being a ho. People were what they were inside, not how they acted. Jessica was the genuine article.
He yanked a board and it broke in two. Damn. What a way to fix a corral.
The trouble with that girl was her snobbery. She painted her horse’s toenails with liquid vitamins from a jar of goop that probably cost $30. Used motor oil worked just as well. She had real money—you could smell it. And she treated Little Jon like an inferior species.
Nothing he hated worse than being looked down on, and it happened all the goddamn time. He’d done freshman year at El Camino, a public high that was 90% gang bangers, 9% Asian scientists, and 1% Little Jon. Day one, he learned to leave his Stetson at home. But word got around, and he was “Wannabe Garth Brooks” from then on. Wiry and quick, Little Jon could fight, but they messed with him anyway. Cutting classes got him kicked out. Now it was Thornton Continuation, where school let out at noon, so Little Jon could spend afternoons wrangling. Which meant he could spend more time being himself.
Out here, it was his world, not prissy Miss Jessica’s.
Little Jon was pure cowboy—came from a line going back to Arizona and Mexico. He wanted an F-250 with an extended cab and a ranch in the sticks with a natural blonde by his side. Here was one very natural blonde. He didn’t just want to bend her over; he wanted to make her like him. Damn near impossible.
Little Jon stacked the wood as he pried it off. Through the hole he was making in the barn wall, he could see the uneven ground of the stall, a deep valley worn into it from years of horse piss. And what was a safety inspector going to say about a topple-down barn with a tractor-sized hole in the wall?
“Bueno asshole,” Pablo said, rounding the corner, “estás trabajando.”
“Fuck this shit.”
Pablo lined up Little Jon’s boards longwise and then lifted them onto his shoulder. Sweat darkened his tank top, despite the chill. Little Jon gathered the rest of the pile and followed.
Pablo and Big John were working on the corral—breaking down rotted sections of fence and pounding the new boards into place, making a Frankenfence out of the whole thing. The horses huddled in the far corner to keep scarce of the racket. Little Jon absently picked up a stone and chucked it into the herd, nailing a chestnut on the rump. The horse bucked halfheartedly and trotted a circle around the other animals, stirring them some. Sid sat on a plastic chair, elbow propped on his knee, cig in hand.
“Idiot,” Sid said, as Little Jon passed.
“Fuck you, Dad.”
Right then, Little Jon was thinking that he really might come out here and let the beasts loose at night, just to change everything. Nothing against Holly, but this was like watching a cancerous old fart die. Why not just close the place? At the same time, the thought of life without horses made Little Jon want to slice his wrists. This was all he had and it wasn’t his.
When Holly’s home improvement project was done for the day, Little Jon didn’t head for the porch and he didn’t head home. He saddled up the new bay and rode her down the ravine trail, where there was no wind. They passed the cypress grove and the rope swing and the boulder garden without meeting a soul. Evening shadows drained the color off the trail. The mare walked easily and Little Jon talked to her, told her a bit about himself. She spooked a little in the narrow chute that opened onto the beach, and when they reached the sand, she whinnied nervously toward the churning waves.
Little Jon urged her near the water, but didn’t push too hard. She trembled beneath him. Twice, when the surf sloshed, she bounded sideways and Little Jon calmed her with his voice and hands and the weight of his body. When he felt her fear give way to curiosity, he let the reins loose so she could sniff the foam. An orange glow lit the underbelly of the clouds, and Little Jon held his hat in one hand to keep the wind from carrying it. Gulls swooped. The mare stepped tentatively into the water, lifting her knees high and snorting. Once she mellowed, Little Jon rode her up out of the water to where the sand was hard-packed.
“Okay, lady, let’s see what you got.” He leaned forward and dug his heels into her gut. The mare crouched back on her hindquarters, then sprang forward like a snapped slingshot, spraying sand behind her. The force tossed him to the back of the saddle, but he held on with his thighs and righted himself. Her speed was fierce. Little Jon let the mare set the pace, let her guide his pelvis and his hands.