Fear bubbled in my stomach as the horseman galloped by and roaredat me, “Tell your wife to shut up, or I’ll ram your teeth downyour throat!” He veered away from us and threw up a cloud of dust, as my wifeshouted at him: “If you beat that animal one more time, I’ll call thehumane society! Don’t you know you can’t control a horse withbrute strength?” Cupping her hands around her mouth, she yelled,”When knowledge ends, violence takes over!” Then she lookedat me to Do Something. But physical contact is not my metier. I shuddered at the thoughtof rolling around on the ground with this oaf, eye-gouping andcrotch-kicking. I turned toward my sometime, longtime lover, a woman ofmyriad achievements and maddening faults. “Okay,” I said. “You’ve told him, so stopbeing a buttinski.
It’s really none of your business.” Her eyes flared at me. “It is my business when someone abusesan animal. Yours, too. Why, look at him with those mutton fistsjerking the horse in the mouth, flapping his arms like a chicken!” His spirited mare was covered with lather, her flanks raw from whiplashed. When he pointed her once more to the four-foot jump, the animalrefused for the third time and ran out to the right. “That’s a fault! Rider fault! You dropped her at thefence!” my wife called out in a crescendo of disbelief.
“Stophindering your horse!” Then she began rocking back and forth on her heels, a signal thather emotional reactor was approaching meltdown. I rubbed my sweatypalms together. La Contessa was slipping her tether again. “LaContessa” is my affectionate appellation for my wife whenever hermindless compassion for animals overcomes her common sense. The rider glowered at her, then wheeled and again goaded his horsetoward the jump. This time the mare slammed on the brakes, lowered herhead and sent him through the air as if ejected from a catapult, hishands still clutching the bridle.
“Rider took the fence, horse didn’t,” my wifeobserved with an impish grin. The man picked himself up and waddled toward us, crop in one hand,bridle in the other, a lump the size of a goiter or his plump head. Helooked like a battle-scarred commando. His small, reptilian eyesblinked warning lights, and my gastric juices started churning again.”I’d better let the dogs out,” I said uneasily, fumblingwith the car door. “Just Nahdor,” my wife said. “Not Beau.
Beau wouldjump up and kiss him.” Beau and Nahdor are 65-pound, russet-colored Hungarian vizslas whohave social-register pedigrees and Hollywood looks. Beau still has alot of the little-boy puppy in him, but his brother Nahdor is a cache ofdynamite waiting for a fuse. I’m willing to bet that Nahdor couldbench-press 400 pounds.
There is not an ounce of excess tissue on hisvery large bones. The plodding rider stopped dead when my wife spoke. “The doghasn’t had his rabies shot yet.” Her smile was sardonic. Oncue, saliva gleamed on Nahdor’s fangs. “And if you’dkept your heels down and looked up, you’d still be on yourhorse,” she added, her usually well-modulated voice rising at leastan octave. “Bull, lady, pure!” he spluttered. “I won two bluesat the Pleasanton horse show last weekend, and no one can tell me .
. ..” She brushed his rage aside with an airy with your horse throughyour back and seat. Not crop and spurs.
Then you wouldn’t have touse that double-twisted wire snaffle. Look how it’s cut into hermouth,” she said, pointing to the blood on the bit. “A man’s got to use a bit like this to make the horseobey,” he broke in, “show ’em who’s boss.” La Contessa threw back her head and laughed. Then she tossed outan 18th-century aphori sm: “The more iron in the mouth of thehorse, the less the knowledge of the rider.” He glared at her and started toward me, but backed up as Nahdorbegan shadowboxing at the end of the leash.
He turned and stomped offto the barn. In the car, I exploded. “Just who the hell do you think youare?” “I’7 not sure. Saint Francis of Assisi?” she saidquietly, adjusting her halo. We rode home in silence. Later that afternoon, I saw the horse van leave but thought nothingof it till I found a battered mare bedded down on piles of straw in ourcarport. “We have a new child,” my wife said, hr face alight witha little-girl grin.
“That husky fellow and I had a talk, and hefinally agreed the mare wasn’t quite right for him. Since wedon’t have any extra stalls, your car will have to sleepoutside.” Beau and Nahdor glanced at one another as if to say, “Luckymare. She really fell into a bucket of butter.” And that’s what can happen if you cohabitate with a woman whoalways finds an extra place at the table in an already overcrowdedanimal hostle.
I live with seven dogs, six horses, five cats and one wife. It’s a shabby husband who proclaims his beloved’s faults,so instead of dragging outsiders through the maze of my maritalproblems, I’ll merely say that my roommate is an animalholic. She is not only an animal lover but a saber-rattling warrior ontheir behalf, imbued with the righteous moral fervor of a revolutionary. She firmly agrees with Mahatma Gandhi: “The way you can judgethe moral progress of a civilization is by the way it treats itsanimals.” She is an attractive, bewitching female with depths that belieone’s first impression of vacuous-mind-with-pretty-face. She is aniconoclast who walks her own line and doesn’t go through lifeseeking reassurances from the herd.
She has a weakness for chocolate, back rubs and Paul Newman. Notnecessarily in that order. Her name is Elizabeth. Animalholism is a strange malady. Like love, it is incurable, andoccasionally I must put on a show of bestface bonhomie to cope withElizabeth’s monomania. Sometimes it’s difficult.
Although La Contessa hits all the right notes with animals, heroutspokenness often flutters in the false We were once a very popular couple. There was a time when werevolved, like the wheels of a slot machine, through the black-tiedinner circuit in company with the heavy-wallet set. Parties overflowedwith women who wore their minds in braids and with men who babbledbanalities about duck clubs and African safaris. If bored, at least weweren’t bored for long; my animalholic live-in inevitably pushed usonto the downwind side of the social gulch.
It began at a soiree one evening when a prominent, retrousse-nosedBrahmin recounted his deer-hunting exploits with measured braggadocio. “Bang, bang,” he intoned in a sonorous Ivy Leaguevibrato, “I hit that 16-pointer between the eyes and dropped himcold.” “Oh, Chuncey,” the hostess twittered, “you’resuch a magnificent sportsman!” I sensed the rising of Elizabeth’s emotional quotient. Shewas looking at the hunter and wearing her mink smile.
Then, in a voicerich in jocular tones, she paraphrased Mark Twain: “If a man couldbe crossed with a deer, it would improve man but would deteriorate thedeer.” Silence fell on the room. All present sat staring at their platesas if caught in flagrante delicto. We were never invited there again. When I first met this untapped charge of dynamite, she appeared tobe the candlelight-and-cocktail type, always looking as if she had juststepped out of a fashion plate. I was the rider, continuously flexingmy biceps like the all-American cowboy.
At that time, Elizabeth didn’t know a mare from a gelding. Soon after we were married, however, my whirling dervish began herriding career. As a relentless believer in humanperfectibility–improve, always improve–in a few years she became awell-balanced rider.
And after several of the leading riding masterssanded down the grainy edges, she was able to really put the mosaictogether. Elizabeth became the chef de cuisine and I the short-ordercook. This role reversal caused some troublesome strains in our marriageboat. It was with mixed emotions that I would watch her little figureguide her huge, spirited jumpers, with skill and dexterity, over thefences. It’s difficult to target the exact moment when Elizabethbecame a strident animalholic; the virus has probably been incubatingsince her birth. But last year her quirky behavior became so pronouncedthat I realized I was married to a woman with more than her share ofidiosyncracies.
On cold nights, she left the front door open for the horses. For Christmas, she gave each dog a moped and a pair of Porscheaviator glasses. The cats received ballet shoes and a paperback on”how to behave at a Tupperware party.” The horses got anAtari space machine and red long johns with drop seats. “It’sbetter to prize eccentricity than to treasure conformity,” sheexplained. I realized that Elizabeth was floating around in her own spherewhen she decamped with her entire animal fiefdom from Pebble Beach toMiddleburg, Virginia, America’s playpen for the horsy set. Shepherding 18 animals across country was a Sisyphean task. But LaContessa managed our seven reddish-brown Hungarian vizslas, five barncats and six titanic jumpers and dressage horses in harmony andtranquility.
Three thousand miles in our crowded ark, and Elizabeth putNoah to shame. A few months after we dropped anchor in Middleburg, Elizabethdecided it was time to expose Sandor and Sergei, the more intellectualdogs, to a bit of cultural high gloss. We took them on the 55-minutedrive to the nation’s capital. The four of us ambled toward the Washington Monument, Elizabethbetween the two dogs. She wore a periwinkle sweater and skirt whichcaught the incandescent blue of her eyes.
It was good to see her out ofriding pants for a change. Long of leg, she has a rounded knee, a fullcalf and a well-turned ankle. It is a pleasurable combination. Sandorand Sergie, freshly scrubbed, shone like new copper in the early morningsun. Their posture was regal, and they swaggered along imperiously inthe manner of those who expect the streets to be carpeted.
Suddenly the dogs put their noses to the ground, nostrils dilatingas they picked up a familiar scent. Horses. They veered off a grass,shaded knoll and froze, muzzles pointing at a group of mountedpolicement. My inamorata paused–then impetuously and with a coltish exuberance, she started up the hill. Sandor and Sergei gave me aknowing look. Deja vu.
. .La Contessa was going to play U-boatcommander again. Unwilling to be caught in the eye of the tornado, I tried to hidemy beach ball of a belly behind a nearby tree.
Tourists stared. I wassure they thought I was going to relieve myself. At the sight of Elizabeth, the sergeant in charge gaped, thenleered. The leer slid into a wink as he dismounted and saluted her witha flourish. He was tall and well built, a handsome brute in a sleazy,salacious way. “Watch out for your dogs, lady,” he chuckled. “Don’t worry,” Elizabeth said, her luminous eyeshappy and flirtatious.
“I have horses. We understand eachother.” “You talk to animals?” he joshed.
“In a way. Animals aren’t verbal–they communicate byreading one another’s minds.” Her voice took on a gentlyauthoritative tone.
“Right now, your horses are telling me thatthey are unhappy.” “These horses? Unhappy? Look how fat they are!” “Your martingales are too tight. The purpose of a standingmartingale is to keep a horse from tossing his head back and hitting arider in the face. You have their heads tied down. That’s whythey’re complaining. It’s uncomfortable. Why not loosen themartingales a few notches–like six?” “Can’t do it.
Against regulations,” said thesergeant. “Maybe I should talk to your mayor, Marion Berry,” shesaid sweetly. “He seems like a sensitive and reasonable man.
” “I’d rather you talk to him about giving us araise,” a good-natured voice called from the ranks. Laughterrippled up and down the line. “And how long have you been sitting on your horses? Threehours?” she purred, answering her own question.
“The constantweight while the horses are standing still is bad for their kidneys andstops circulation. Their back muscles must be aching. Why don’tyou dismount for a few minutes?” No one answered. Her emotions were still on low, and she turned the full force ofher 150-watt blue eyes on the stoic faces. “It’s clear that you’re all equipment men. Boots,buttons and tack shined to perfection.
Why, these animals could pass awhite-glove inspection. But are you more concerned with your exemplaryappearance than with the inner souls of your horses?” By now a small crowd had encircled the combatants. Silence.Someone coughed nervously. I peered around the tree to see if LaContessa were rocking back and forth on her heels yet. But shecontinued to radiate charm and femininity, a beatific smile on her face.The sun cascaded down her honey-colored hair.
a tall, angular patrolman with a hawklike face and bobcat eyesbroke the tension. “You’re right, lady, and I admire yourguts for sticking up for the horses, since they can’t stick up forthemselves. I’ll oblige.” He dismounted. Soon most of theriders were on the ground, and spasmodic laughter and clapping broke outfrom the onlookers. Elizabeth walked the dogs back down the hill, looking as thoughshe’s just belled the cat. As the three-some passed the tree whereI still hid, Sandor and Sergei glanced at me and gave me the thumbs-upsign. In early spring the flowers are in full bloom in South Carolina.
Elizabeth suggested we tour the famous Magnolia Gardens, with a visit tohistoric Charleston. We were chaperoned by Barron, Brandi and Zsa-Zsa–the only femaleof the seven dogs. They are great traveling companions, as well asdistinct personalities. We hit the Magnolia Gardens in jubilant spirits, but our stay inCharleston was a trifle blue as La Contessa almost reenacted the Warbetween the States. Not since South Carolina seceded from the Union andGeneral Beauregard captured Fort Sumter has Charleston rocked to such acacophony. We were spending the day in Charleston, a warm and humid April day.Elizabeth, looking every inch the mistress of the house, strolled pastthe steps of the historic Nathaniel Russell Mansion of Meeting Street.
She wore a yellow linen dress of classic, elegant lines and abroad-brimmed, yellow straw hat. A white magnolia blossom added alovely touch. She lingered at the edge of the manicured lawn to admirea hovering swallowtail butterfly, and the dogs and I plopped down in theVolks station wagon to wait for her.
A big bay horse with protruding ribs came limping down the streetand pulling a garland-bedecked carriage. Nine sweaty tourists weresandwiched on the seats. The dirver stopped the rig before the oldhouse. Water poured from the horse’ back, and his head droppedbelow his knees. Elizabeth’s gaze swept the scene and came to rest on theexhausted animal. After a short silence, she addressed the driver witha half-frisky smile. “Sir, your horse’ sides are shaking, and he seems to bevery tired.
Don’t you think the load might be a bit too heavy forhim in this heat?” The driver peered down at her. He was a sinister-looking characterwith a Viva Zapata mustache and a beer gut. “Now, Sweet Toots,” he rasped, “don’t you worryyour pretty little head about my horse. We’ve been together a longtime. So just you stand aside, Sweet Toots.
My customers didn’tpay me to see you.” “Nor did your customers pay to be hauled around by a horse soskinny he looks like an X-ray picture. Didn’t you read in thismorning’s newspaper about the horse who fell over and died of heartexhaustion? He was pulling an overloaded wagon like the one youhave.” “Listen, Sweet Toots, fanatics I don’t need. And whatwould you know about horses, anyway?” His mustache quivered withpointed indignation. “I know enough never to sell any of mine, so they won’twind up with a brute like you.” Now her voice was icy.
Elizabeth fired her next salvo. “Your horse is lame becausehe’s not shod properly and can’t stand the concussion of thehard pavement. He’s in pain.” “Bug off, Sweet Toots,” the driver shouted. “Bugoff!” “You’re a lout of heroic insensitivity,” shescreamed, her hands gesturing in short chops. “And as for yourpoor horse, every day is without dignity or hope.” La Contessa wasexhaling pure fury. Then, just as the driver whipped his horse into a rattlingsleepwalk down the street, Elizabeth jumped behind the wagon and beganpushing it.
A chubby kid with a choirboy face leaped down to join her,and several street urchins ran up to help them ease the horse’load. A few of the male passengers got off, but the remaining cargo sattight, staring fixedly ahead in consternation. The carriage moved a bit more easily now. Having made her point,Elizabeth walked back to the car. Perspiration seeped through heryellow dress, and she no longer looked like the Mistress of the House.
But to me, my wife had never looked more beautiful. Back in our motel room, Elizabeth’s anger was still firing onall cylinders, so I took the dogs out for a Big Mac. We returned to find Elizabeth asleep.
Piled high on the dresserwere protest notes to the major of Charleston, the SPCA, the chamber ofcommerce, the chief of police and the president of the United States.Attached to the bathroom mirror was a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: Almost anything you do will be insignificant, but it is veryimportant that you do it.