by Mary Cuffe Perez

Nominated for a 2023 Pushcart Prize

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I’m sucking on a Tootsie Pop and my father, who we only know as Sonny, is staring into a paper cup of coffee like he wishes it was something else. It’s 1957, Sunday morning, and raining. We’re waiting in the Safeway parking lot for Sid. He’s going to drive us across the mountains to Yakima to see a horse he has out there that Sonny says maybe I can ride. I don’t expect this to happen.

Nothing happens the way Sonny says it will. Something will happen, but it won’t be the same thing, or on the same day. You always end up elsewhere. You could be thinking you’re headed for the Duckabush to fish for Dolly Varden, or up the Staircase to hunt chanterelles, or digging little necks in Hoodsport. But instead, you will either end up at Pike Market, arguing with a Vietnamese farmer over the price of a head of bok choy, or in some little closet of a store in the back alley of Chinatown while Sonny fights with the shopkeeper over the freshness of his duck; or most likely, you will be stuck in the backseat of the Studebaker staring at the outside of Sunset Tavern, a “quick stop” on the way to somewhere you’ll never get to. Sonny’s habit of misdirection, Marge says, is how we ended up in the wilderness of Washington State in the first place. My mother would have been happy spending the rest of her life in Tennessee where all her family lived, but I don’t guess Sonny ever asked her thoughts on it.

I’m usually the one of the four kids Sonny snatches up for these elsewhere adventures. Maxine is too young and prone to dramas; Lewis is too “Lewis”; Mike is gone so much of the time we don’t notice anymore. Sonny calls me his “Lefty” because I’m the only one, he claims, with common sense. That doesn’t fool me. Lefty means I’m the one flushing pheasants from cornfields, toting the still warm bodies of shot rabbits and squirrels in burlap bags on hunting trips, or belly-scooching across a log over the Hamma Hamma to retrieve a snagged lure. I’ve been Sonny’s worm digger, beer fetcher, and, when he’s too drunk to navigate, his guide back to the car. And by the way, I don’t consider anything about myself “common.” I have plans.

A truck pulls up. Powder blue, serious looking Chevy. Sonny sits up, dumps his coffee out the window, gets out of the Studebaker. I figure I should too. There’s this guy leaning against the fender of the truck, looking like he just drove in from Montana. Cowboy hat, silver buffalo head belt buckle, boots with swirls of tooling. He’s the real thing to me, all cowboy, even though I know he’s an engineer who works with Sonny at Boeing. He’s tall, with eyes the same gray blue as his shirt, and he smiles at me. Tips his hat. Sandy hair. I might pee my pants.

“You the horse woman I hear ‘bout?” he drawls, adjusting the hat to just the right angle over his left eye. I giggle like a goon. I don’t know what he’s talking about. I’m so completely lovestruck I can only stare at him until Sonny climbs into the other side of the cab, and I know I should get in, too. The truck doesn’t have a running board, a dilemma for me that Sid quickly picks up on. He makes a cradle of his hands, which I almost put my butt into until I realize he’s giving me a leg up. Even so, Sid has to give my butt one final push so I don’t topple backwards.  Then I am seated between Sid and Sonny, who have not yet said a word to one another, and we’re off to Yakima. I think maybe this might be all right.

Horse woman. I roll those delicious words over in my mind. Anyone can clearly see that, at age 11, I am a long way from “woman,” but to hear that word drawled out by Sid in reference to me is thrilling. I know it’s just one of those things adults say to kids, but it makes me feel bright as a full moon on a clear night. I may not fit the woman part, but I am a horse person for real. Just like Sonny. Only my horse experience is less actual. My riding had been done on the sly when we still lived in White Center, the first house we rented when we moved here from Tennessee. Maxine and I used to sneak into a pasture up the road from us where an old palomino named Ned was kept. Old Ned would let us climb up on his back all right, but he didn’t much like being told what to do, like move forward. If we got too bossy, he’d part company with us with one quick side step. That pretty much sums up my riding endeavors. 

Though I’d never seen him ride a horse — can’t imagine it — Sonny had been a horseman.  He never says much about those days, but Rie, my grandmother, does. She can suck you right in with her stories. Most of her stories go way back to the days she was married to General Clarence Irvine, who she says rescued her as a young widow from the “backwater” of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and turned Robert Kelso Jr., her ten-year-old son, into Robert Irvine, aka Sonny boy. Thereafter they led a life of wealth and privilege (which Sonny boy apparently grew out of by the time we came along). Rie would end this story with the tagline: “… until, for whatever featherbrained reason, he took that job in Nashville...,” then, with a staggering sigh, hand to chest as if her heart might fly out of her, “… and married your mother.”

Marge says that no matter where we move, Rie ends up in the rearview mirror. Rie sold the farm in Pennsylvania and moved all the way out to Washington State and now lives just up the beach from us on Puget Sound. She brings everything she collected in the early days from her round-the-world trips with the General — furniture and paintings and huge shipping trunks with lids so heavy you can hardly lift them. Marge says that she can’t let go of anything — that includes Sonny boy. There are several photos in wrought iron frames positioned throughout Rie’s house of my father as a young man on his thoroughbred stallion, Pete, taking a five-foot jump; my father with his college tennis team, my father playing the piano for an admiring arrangement of women, all in long dresses, their faces eclipsed by big brimmed hats. As long as I have stared at these photos, I can’t seem to take the steps from the man in the photo to Sonny.

I find myself studying him now as he stares straight ahead, past the wobbly woman in a grass skirt on the dashboard. The sharp angles of chin, cheekbone, the slash of mouth. He looks like a crow with most of its feathers pulled out.

Sid reaches for a six-pack of Olympia under the seat, which immediately puts Sonny in a better mood. Sonny cracks open a couple with the can opener Sid hands him. Then Sid pulls out a bottle of Coke for me, and with one hand, uncaps it. I’m mightily impressed by this. I suck off the fizz from the top of the bottle and decide life is not bad at all, even though it’s raining and I can’t see much because the dashboard blocks my line of vision. I drink my Coke and stare down at the amoeba designs on my pedal pushers and wish I didn’t have so much hair on my legs which are sticking out in front of me. I admire my almost new Keds and wonder about the horse we are going to see while Sonny and Sid laugh about someone at work who has his head up his ass. I imagine myself riding that horse, and what he’ll look like and how he will put his muzzle in my hand and know my soul the way, I’ve read, horses do.


It’s a long way to Yakima. I wonder why Sid and Sonny thought it was a good idea to drive all the way out there. I am old enough to know it doesn’t have anything to do with me riding a horse. They just want to spend the day drinking — which couldn’t officially be called a day drinking because they had someplace to go. But I try not to think about it. I keep glancing up at the rearview mirror to catch a good view of Sid’s gray blue eyes, the way they squint as if in a wind, cowboy-like. Sid isn’t like Sonny’s other friends — Con, owner of the Blue Ox, where Sonny does his drinking on the way home from work, or Lolibee, his rabbit hunting buddy, or Shag, who he fishes Lake Sawyer with because Shag has a cabin and a boat there. Sid is more solid, more my idea of manly. He doesn’t smoke either, like Sonny, who flicks butts of Camels out the window.

Once you pass through Snoqualmie Pass, the country shrugs and becomes something else. It’s magical and scary, the way you can be one place one minute and someplace else the next. On the east side of the Cascades the land falls off into long flat golden plains of hops, then cornfields, apple orchards and onion farms. The mountains, from the east side, seem to be receding, as if next time you look, they won’t be there. They always are though. Sonny took me hunting pheasants in Yakima a couple of times where, again, I played the bird dog role. We spent more time in Virgil Curtis’ tar paper shack than hunting. Virgil is a black man we first met when Sonny lost the car after hunting pheasants. Virgil’s shack sits in the middle of an orchard of King apples and he and Sonny spent the rest of that day drinking apple wine while I visited with Virgil’s old hound that didn’t have a name.


The air temperature changes as you go through Snoqualmie Pass, and rain turns to snow.  You can get caught in a blizzard up here, or an avalanche can come down on you, but we get lucky and there are just these big lazy flakes of snow swirling around like they have no bad intentions whatsoever, just want to dance to whatever rhythm the wobbly woman is swaying to.   Sid leans over, his arm extending in front of me to turn on the radio. “Pardon me, little lady,” he says in that drawl that sounds like hillbilly music. He stays in that position long enough to lay on me a look that says a whole lot more than I know what to do with. I feel my ears go red. I’ve never had anyone look at me like that before.

It’s country music, the kind Sonny hates, but he’s drinking beer and the music is low enough that he doesn’t seem to mind. It might be the slow motion of the snowflakes on the windshield, the wobble of the wobbly woman and the softness of the music that puts me to sleep.  Next thing I know the truck is parked and Sid is gone and Sonny is looking hard at the side of a cinder block building painted a sick shade of green. We’re on the reservation and it’s a whisky stop.

Sonny is working on the second six pack, but it’s OK as long as it’s beer. He quit drinking whisky during the day when he almost lost his job at Boeing. Now, he only drinks whisky at the Blue Ox.

“Where’s Sid?” I ask stupidly, knowing of course where Sid is because there is this building and nothing else for as far as I can see. Sonny doesn’t answer, he’s still staring at the side of the building. When Sid comes out, he’s carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag like that little bag isn’t advertising the whisky inside, and walking his cowboy walk and smiling his cowboy smile. He swings himself up into the truck and winks at me, peels down the paper, unscrews the cap and takes a swig of whisky. He grimaces like it’s the worst or best thing he’s ever tasted, then winks at Sonny, who is still staring straight ahead like he is reading something on the side of the building, but there’s nothing there, nothing at all.

Sonny lifts the beer can to his mouth, drains it in two long gulps, then tosses the can out the window. Sid, with a lopsided grin, holds the whisky bottle out to Sonny. Right then, my thinking about Sid changes. 

They both take another drink and the two of them stare at the side of that damn puke green building until Sid finally starts the truck up, revs the engine and pulls out like some kind of point has been made. It has stopped raining, but I wish it would rain or do something. I’m trapped between the two. I can smell the whisky hate start to rise.

Sonny and Sid have stepped into some murky current of conversation, and I can’t make out much. Except that Sid is talking about a woman, a woman he did something to, and how he never apologizes, not for anything. “If they can’t take it, they can leave,” Sid snarls. He looks happy with himself and not nearly as handsome. He takes another swig of whisky. I’m watching Sonny from the corner of my eye. I feel some heat coming off of him that makes me want to squirm away. He looks chiseled down even more, every feature sharper, even the down slope of his mouth hardens into a contrary smile. He lights another cigarette although it’s already hard to breathe in the truck and I think Sid is about to say something because he doesn’t even smoke and before we got in his truck it didn’t have a thing in it except the wobbly woman.

“You better get over that,” my father says real low, almost like a growl. “You’ll be a lonely old fart with nobody to pick you up and put you on the toilet.” Then he takes a big swallow of whisky and stares across me, hard at Sid. “And it will come to that. It will come to that. Apologize sometimes.” I puzzle over this. “Apologize” doesn’t sound right coming from Sonny. I wonder if Marge ever heard him use this word, but I don’t think about this too long because the air is squeezed tight between Sonny and Sid and I’m caught in the middle.

Sid snorts like the whisky might come up through his nose. It sounds like a challenge Sonny will surely take on. The atmosphere in the truck turns thick as the smoke and it feels like the breath is being sucked out of me. Then the truck stops.

This is not a whisky stop. Sid rolls down the window and I grab a long gulp of air. It’s a grassland, dazzling in the slice of sun squeezing through the heavy lid of gray-blue clouds. The grass is palomino gold, dappled with pools of intense green that stretch for miles to a low hill dark with cedars, and through a narrow break in the cedars to a higher field of grasses the color of a copper kettle. We pull up to a paddock and shed and get out of the truck. The paddock gate is open. No horse.

Sid comes around the truck, cups his hands around his mouth and hollers “Chico!” loud as a horn blast, followed by a cowboy whoop-pee that I’d think would send a horse, if there is a horse, running in the opposite direction. The sun steps in and out again, the fields shift from dazzle to dusky. Sonny and Sid squint toward the break in the hills like they are expecting a horse, but I can’t see any horse coming down from the gold and copper and green fields for a drunk cowboy. Then Sid bends down to me and whispers, “there.”

He points to a black speck moving toward us. “Chico,” I gasp. And he is real. 

And he is here. Blowing like a locomotive, he barrels into the paddock and skids to a stop in front of the bucket of grain Sid has set out. Sid slips around to close the gate, then grabs a halter with a rope attached where it hangs from a nail on the shed. I stare at the horse, already wearing a thick chestnut winter coat, chest darkened with sweat, sides moving like bellows, pumping out heat, power and enormous energy. He is magnificent and terrifying. Chico lips up the grain and upends the bucket with his nose, throws his head and regards the three of us, ears twitching back and forth, lower jaw grinding the last of the grain. Then he snorts a challenge. I don’t think any of the three of us are up to meeting it and Chico doesn’t either. He swings his head in a half circle and tears off at full gallop around the paddock, bucking, farting and pretty much confirming his opinion of us.

Sonny turns to Sid who is looking down at his fancy boots. I’m sure Sid feels the force of his gaze because I can as it passes over my head and smacks Sid. A definite challenge. Sid throws the halter and rope over the fence and stretches both arms in the air as if growing bored with all this and ambles over to the back of the shed, keeping his eyes on the paddock. He pulls a horseshoe keychain out of a vest pocket, ponders the keys for a while, then puts them back in his pocket. He turns and walks extra slow back toward us. “Too wet to ride,” he announces in a pinched off drawl. “It’ll spot my saddle. That saddle set me back much as the truck.”

It doesn’t rain as often on this side of the Cascades, but it’s raining now. The dazzle off the fields. It might have just started or been raining, on and off, all along. I’m so used to rain that I don’t know wet from dry anymore. I am too scared to ride Chico anyway, but now I am sure interested in seeing a saddle worth as much as a truck. I would ask, but I see that’s not a good idea. Sid looks like he’s sliding down into his boots, his handsome features squirming inward. I know then that he is no real cowboy. He’s scared as I am. Scared of his own horse. Meanwhile, Sonny doesn’t say anything, just watches Chico, a soggy cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth. He’s sizing him up.

“Sorry little lady,” Sid grunts. He’s not looking at me but sideways at Sonny, who is still studying Chico. Then, Sid starts for the gate, to let Chico back up into the hills.

“We’ll ride him bareback then,” Sonny says real low, picking some loose tobacco off his tongue. Sid stops, slices his eyes at my father. He is mad as hell. Mad twisted into a sickening grin.

“Go on, Bob. I’d love to see it.”

I hate Sid for sure now. He’s itching to see my old drunk father get run over by a horse. Sonny isn’t an old man but compared to Sid he looks it. In fact, he looks like he could probably hold a cup and sit on the sidewalk like the homeless people in Pioneer Square. His black hair is plastered in streaks down his face. He’s wearing sneakers instead of boots and some shiny-at-the-ass, tan slacks he used to wear to work. No boots, no hat, no leather vest. But he isn’t scared.

He throws down his cigarette, grabs the halter and climbs the fence into the paddock. Chico is still charging around the paddock like it’s a miniature racetrack until he sees a rather insubstantial human standing in the middle of the paddock holding a halter with a rope attached. He stops, ears twitching. He has to be curious. Then he pivots on his back legs and bolts into a dead gallop again, throwing up his hind legs so high it looks like he could flip over backwards. Sonny stands there. Chico stops. Nostrils flaring, steam rising from his body. My father walks up to him. The horse doesn’t move. My father extends a hand under his muzzle, slides the other hand down the white blaze of Chico’s face, his neck, then moves one step closer and slips the halter on. I can’t watch, but I do. Chico looks like he’s bunching up his muscles for a serious revolt. Then my father is on his back and Chico, perhaps stunned by the lunacy of this skinny human, does not move. My father presses his heels into the horse’s sides until he steps forward. He doesn’t buck or bolt but breaks into an easy canter around the paddock as if this is what he has been waiting to be asked to do.

Sid and I say nothing, expecting at any instant for Chico to leap the fence and drag my old man off into the high country. But they just canter, the two of them, round and round, sinking into each lap like it cost nothing of either of them, like it is a journey they are on together, and we on the outside can only watch.

Chico finally slows to an easy trot, walks, stops. Sonny slides off, staggers a little as he leads the beautiful dark chestnut toward me. I think I am going to touch him, which, honestly, would be enough, but before I can reach my hand out to the white blaze on Chico’s face, my father lifts me up on his back. Flips the rope up to me and walks away.


I don’t remember the ride home, only that it rained, snowed, and the wobbly woman wobbled. I had ridden Chico. I still breathed that rank, warm horse smell, felt the heat radiating through my thighs and into my chest, sank into the gentle rocking as he walked the perimeter of the paddock, head bobbing to the rhythm of each stride. Long, red tangled mane. Peaks of ears. I slept on and off on the ride back. I don’t think Sid and my father had much to say to one another. I was in my Chico place, hungering for a horse of my own with a white streak down its face and a tangled red mane, when “apologize” rose up again, out of the murk of hours before. I wondered, turning the word over in my mind, when had my father ever apologized?


end of story

© 2022, Mary Cuffe Perez (excerpt from memoir: Just be Pleasant and Enjoy the Ride) Go to top