Every man hates a Conor. They all remember losing a girl to a guy with lank hair strumming a guitar and singing sad songs in a breaky voice. That guy’s name is always Conor, even if it’s Brad or Forrest. Suffice to say I’ve endured a lot of hate in my life, and I don’t even own a guitar.
George had lost more than one girl to a Conor. I could tell that about him right away. He had no problem killing a Conor either.
Heading home from the bar, Jess and Lara found him in the park, alone, scared. Sweat gleamed on his bay coat. They petted him on the bridge of the nose, up and down a white T that ran between his eyes. He swished his tail, blinked his eyes, and made low horse noises. Slowly he was soothed.
—Look at his eyelashes, such eyelashes.
—Where did you come from, honey?
Jess pointed to the fenders on the saddle.
—He belongs to the police.
They talked it over. Jess went to find somebody, while Lara stayed with him. He wandered a few paces, as she held on to the reins. Then she noticed the wet clumps on his withers, the open furrow on his neck, and something shiny buried deep in the meat.
She called Jess, but it went straight to voicemail.
—Hey, where are you? He’s hurt on the neck. I think there’s a bullet, like, lodged in there.
He flicked his ears back and forth, as if he understood. She waited, but there was no sign of Jess. Then she was struck by a thought and started to worry.
George … George … George. You were my friend, and I haven’t had many of those, being a Conor and knowing too much about people. I’ve always been too good at reading faces. Being a sinner helps with that. If I recognize something in myself, I can perceive it in others. Their hidden motivations aren’t hidden from me. It’s like they all have pictures of Dorian Gray overlaid on their faces.
—It’s my birthday.
—Happy birthday in Spanish.
—I don’t think that’s right.
—You’re not Christ?
You were bloodthirsty and a lunatic to boot. Rest in peace, my friend. No, I’m not Christ. But you know that by now.
Time passed with only the hum of insects in the dark. Lara fished in her purse for a stick of gum. When the wind kicked up, his mane rippled. Suddenly she felt the insistence of those last two beers and went behind a bush.
His nostrils fluttered near her ear. She screamed. When she stopped screaming, she laughed.
They were hemmed in by arcing trees. Seeing him up close, she was struck again by his equine beauty. She could smell hay and sweet molasses.
Finally Jess returned, coming around a bend in the path, winding between shadows. Nobody was with her.
—Jesus, where’ve you been? I thought you were going to get help.
—I heard your message and got spooked. Is he really hurt?
Lara showed her the wound. Jess didn’t like the looks of it. Despite the parlous situation, they decided something had to be done.
—We can’t just abandon the poor guy.
—If we take him up to the lake entrance, there’s usually someone in the booth by the gate.
—Right, we can leave him with the guard.
I don’t like to borrow things because of my propensity to lose things. Books, for example. Every time I borrow a book, I wind up needing to buy another copy to replace the one I lost. Might as well buy it in the first place. Trouble is, I’m always broke. So I borrow and I lose, and then I owe, because I can’t afford to buy. Of course, I could just never return what I borrowed. But that is not borrowing. That is called giving and taking. I don’t mind taking what people give me, but most people prefer to lend—at least until they realize what happens when they let me borrow.
So borrow, lose, owe, that’s how it goes. Naturally I end up owing people a lot of stuff. And maybe that explains how I wound up owing George a horse. I admit it was a bad decision on my part to borrow a horse from him. But I was going to fix everything. If only he hadn’t come in guns a’ blazing. Typical.
They stopped for a moment, because the animal was laboring, his breath churning through clogged resistance.
—Did you want a pony when you were little?
—I was too pragmatic.
—What a weird night.
—I think I had a dream like this once.
—Really, what happened?
—I was being chased by something, and I found a horse, and I needed to ride him to get away, but every time I tried my foot would slip out of the stirrup.
—How did it end?
—All dreams end the same way.
—You wake up.
—You come back.
I would never hurt a horse. You should’ve known that, George. People—men and women, sure—but not a horse. People shape their own moral destiny. Their insides are filled with hell, so they bring hell down on themselves. You can’t avoid hurting them if you wanted to. But horses are simply beautiful.
When I was a boy, my father showed me a video of the 1973 Preakness, won by Secretariat. Last going into the first turn, Big Red hits his stride and bolts to the lead with astonishing, mind-blowing ease. I cried. I cried for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me. I looked at my father, and there were tears in his eyes as well. I’ve talked to many people since who’ve told me the same thing.
Brown, shaggy, with fuzzy antlers and a dark goatee that betrayed his pointedly pretentious personality, Mr. Moose had accompanied Jesse through six states and seven years on an ever westward trajectory that was now, finally, reaching its conclusion. Tomorrow, on an early Christmas morning flight, she and her mother were bound for San Francisco, and from there, a 90-minute drive up the coast to the pre-industrial town of Calico Bay, California, where Jesse's new father and his house awaited. It was therefore imperative to locate Mr. Moose without delay and stow him securely in the suitcase that included the other luminaries of their theatrical family: Mr. Dolphin, Dr. Pig, Mrs. Antelope, Professor Gator, and Pastor Water Buffalo. Although all of these renowned thespians had their particular uses, it was undeniably Mr. Moose who possessed the versatility and star power to excel in any leading role.
As the afternoon wore on, and the great method actor's whereabouts remained a mystery, a creeping sense of panic began to set in, and Jesse commenced a foot by square foot search of their two-bedroom condo. When this failed, and the chilling possibility loomed that Mr. Moose might be lost, she resorted to the one thing she hated to do: She asked her mother. "Mom, have you seen Mr. Moose?"
"Where did you see him last?" her mother replied, continuing to drape various articles of clothing across herself in front of the closet mirror, tossing some on the floor and others on the bed, "Did you check the treasure chest?"
"Yes, five thousand times. He's not in there. He's not anywhere."
"He must be somewhere, Jess, honey. Unless you took him out somewhere. Did you take him out?"
She was greatly disturbed by her mother's failure to notice the alarm in her voice. "I took him to Billy's on Tuesday. But I'm sure I never took him out of my bag, and I'm pretty sure I checked my bag when I got home."
"Then he must be here somewhere," her mother concluded, with a note of equanimity that placed the responsibility and the blame squarely on someone else's shoulders.
Having received the typical amount of assistance from a conversation with her mother, Jesse stalked out. She went into the kitchen to get a glass of milk and access the situation. Mr. Moose was not in the house, that much was clear. But where then could he be? Was it possible that he was at Billy's after all? But how could she forget something like taking him out of her bag? The more she thought about it, the more uncertain she became. And then, driven by her desperation, a darker thought emerged. Could Billy have removed Mr. Moose from her bag without her knowledge? The idea sent a shock of outrage through her, but the shock was also coupled with hope. Billy was one of her only friends, one of the only people in Kipling that she would miss. They hadn't lived there long enough for her to get to know many people. But how well did she really know Billy?
There wasn't much time to waste. In the evening, her mother wouldn't let her go out again. After a final unsuccessful sweep of her room, she told her mother she was going over to Billy's and promised to be back in time for dinner. Billy lived in a condo a couple blocks away. The whole neighborhood, in fact, consisted of chain-link fences and rows of dreary condos that resembled oversized tool sheds. The people didn’t even bother to put up wreaths or Christmas lights. As she walked, it occurred to her that this was probably the last time she’d see these streets, a notion that under other circumstances would've made her happy. But now she felt too agitated by what she might discover at Billy's.
After his mother let her in, Jesse went upstairs to Billy's room. The door was closed, which wasn't especially out of the ordinary (Billy's mother had a habit of snooping), but it filled her with foreboding. She knocked and after a moment heard quick footfalls thump towards her. Billy's pudgy, freckled face broke into a smile when he saw her. "Hi! I was just about to come see you!"
"What do you mean, why? To say goodbye. You're leaving tomorrow, right?"
They sat on his bed, on the bright yellow Japanese anime bedspread, as he peppered her with questions about California. They were questions she mostly couldn’t answer, because she’d never been to California, and all she knew, besides the transparently positive things her mother told her (You can jump in the ocean, and it feels like a bubble bath!), was that it was too warm there to snow even in January.
As casually as she could, she glanced around the room. There were matchbox cars and airplanes strewn on the floor, rubber dinosaurs locked in combat, plastic swords on a shelf—typical boy stuff, certainly nothing to implicate Billy. As far as toys went, stuffed animals didn’t seem to be his style.
“Do you know what you’re getting for Christmas? I snuck into my parents’ closet and shook all the presents, but I couldn’t tell what anything was.”
“I think my mother thinks moving to California is a present.”
Billy tilted his head, leaning on one arm. He looked lopsided. He had trouble sitting still, so when his mother cut his hair in the bathroom, the results tended to be uneven. “Hey,” he said, breathing the word out with an exaggerated puff, “I’ve got something for you.”
She tensed and scanned his face. Was this an admission of guilt? His eyebrows were knitted together; his movements seemed nervous. He knelt and reached under his bed, the whole upper half of his body disappearing for a second. When he reappeared he had a small box, which he hastily shoved into her hands. The box was rather inexpertly wrapped; evidently Billy had used twice as much scotch tape as wrapping paper.
But Jesse wasn’t thinking of how it was wrapped. She was thinking: This box is too small. Mr. Moose couldn’t possibly be inside. And as she opened it, slowly and stiffly, she understood how foolish it had been to let her imagination run away with her. It was a silver bracelet with tiny moons and flowers, the sort of thing that had likely come from the mall from one of those jewelry carousels that provides employment for innumerable bored teenagers across the country.
She smiled and let him tie the bracelet around her wrist. In a flash, he leaned in and stole a kiss. It was so fast you couldn’t even call it a peck on the lips. It was more like a blink against her mouth, but it left them both red-faced and tingly.
So Mr. Moose was gone, really gone.
Later, sitting across from her mother, staring blankly at her fork as it molded the food on her plate, Jesse considered casting Mr. Dolphin as her new leading man. It seemed like the logical choice, since he was next in line by seniority. Still, she wasn’t sure if he was ready to handle the monumental task of stepping into Mr. Moose’s experienced shoes. Mr. Moose, after all, had been present from the beginning; she couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been there. He had been with her in Georgia, in the small mesh playpen that they kept in the living room so that her original father could keep an eye on her while he watched television. He had been with her in Arkansas, in the house on the dead-end street where someone had crashed a car into the tree in their front yard, causing her mother to freak out. He had gone with her to the doctor in Missouri, when she had caught the chicken pox, and her mother had bought her any candy she wanted from the store at the gas station. He had gone with her to the county fair in Texas, where Jerry, her all-time favorite father, had knocked over some milk bottles and won her Pastor Water Buffalo.
All the places she’d been with Mr. Moose were now in the past, and suddenly, she didn’t want to think about casting Mr. Dolphin or any new leading man anymore, because that was the future, and the future was too hard and too unclear to feel strongly about. Instead she just wanted to remember everything about what she had freshly lost. She wanted to drift in her memories of Mr. Moose, even though it was her memory that had betrayed her.
So when her mother finally noticed her gloominess and asked if something was wrong, she said that she was fine, because she knew no good would come out of telling her. She could imagine what her mother would say anyway. If she was in a bad mood, she would tell her that she was almost nine years old, and she was getting too old to play with stuffed animals. If she was in a good mood, she would tell her that she’d buy her a new moose for her birthday next month. Or no, she'd say that Greg would buy her a new moose, because her mother wanted her to like Greg. But even if they could somehow find another one, where could they find one with a dark goatee?
Early the next morning, when her alarm jerked her awake, Jesse dug through her suitcase one last time, but that brief sensation people sometimes experience, that faint wish that unfortunate events were just dreamed, was soon dispelled. Weak sunlight was coming through her window, and the day was already conducting its business, and her mother was in a panic, because even though she had spent the whole time yesterday packing, she had still managed to leave essential items unpacked. As a result, they would have to rush if they were to make it to the airport on time.
It was Christmas, but it didn’t matter at all, because her mother needed her help. Everything needed to be loaded into the car: duffel bags, backpacks, handbags, their entire lives or what their lives amounted to.
And as her mother yelled at her to take her things out to the car and put them in the trunk, Jesse took a final look around her room and then dragged her suitcase outside. And as she shivered in the morning air, her memory, which had betrayed her—for what is losing something but the defeat of memory—blazed to life. And one thought flared in her mind: The car!