For my AARP birthday, Bea took me to Surprise Valley. “We’ll find some hot springs,” she said as the 447 crested into the valley’s basin. “There’s supposed to be horses. Like Assateague Island.”
“Those are ponies.”
“Same thing,” she said.
“Those are ponies.” I put venom into the word like I was trying to kill something, and Bea sucked her teeth and let me alone while I watched the vast mountains. I wanted to feel something, but all I saw was emptiness and the Law and Order marathon I was missing and Bea’s blue vest that made her look like a Walmart greeter. She’d almost popped me when I told her that, but she still wore it.
I muttered passive aggressiveness, affronted at the idea that ponies were the same as horses, but really I just didn’t want this to be my AARP birthday. I resented everything, from the ache in my jaw to the wildflowers, creeks and hills. Somewhere out there were towns filled with people who weren’t getting older, and roaming herds of horses under the sun that thought they were free.
I thought about telling her all that, maybe apologizing for my tone, but I could tell she was done listening to me.
Eventually, we parked by the trail markers. “Get out, you old fool,” Bea said, rummaging in the back for canteens, tents, trail mix and who knows what else. She was always over-prepared. On our honeymoon, I brought a backpack with a couple changes of clothes and my razor. She brought two suitcases, the second filled with all the shit I’d forgotten.
Maybe I rely on her to be my memory, but I have other qualities. I know where to find the salt and how much olive oil to use, how to prune the roses and how to get the knot out of her back that visits just under her shoulder blades.
Bea waited patiently while I did frou-frou Yoga that I had to admit soothed the fire in my back muscles to a low broil. I can lift our grandchildren and run after the ice cream truck, but the kinks come out slower these days. At my checkup last week, the doctor said I’ll eventually need a new vertebrae and maybe new teeth. No wonder I have the grumps.
Eventually we walked towards the mountains and muttered at one another, not real conversation, just a reminder that we were alive. Over the hours, other hikers passed or sometimes we passed, and we waved and nodded and they nodded and waved, speaking the silent language of the out-and-about.
“I have to admit,” I told Bea while admiring the sky, “I feel better.”
“Happy birthday, fool.” She put her arm around my waist.
We stopped at a clear lake alongside a young family. The woman looked too young to be a mother, but she breastfed and texted and admonished her brood simultaneously, so she was clearly old enough. We got to talking and the middle child told us about the wild horses. “Some have fangs.”
“What do you mean?” I squatted despite my legs’ protest. Children deserved to be looked in the eye by their elders.
She played with the bead at the end of her braids. She glanced at her father, who nodded. “Some horses have teeth-like fangs in the back of their mouth but they’re just blind wolf teeth.” I could tell she didn’t quite know what she was saying. Neither did I.
“Like wisdom teeth? Those come in when you’re older,” I offered.
“Ok,” she said, and lost interest in me because where we were bugs crawled and clouds lived in the sky.
On the second leg, we passed mostly young folks, though one couple had whiter hair than us. They jogged in spandex, wiry muscles defying the sun.
Bea whistled when they faded into the dust. “We should take up running. Or squash. I used to play squash.
“I didn’t know that,” I said, thinking about the dusty barbells in the basement.
“You don’t know everything about me.” She winked, and I remembered why I loved her.
At our campsite, I roasted corn and chicken in our open fire while Bea rubbed her feet and asked my opinion of the day.
“Best birthday in years.”
Bea grinned and she patted the ground flat in order to lay down and put her head in my lap. While the food cooled, I stroked her hair in the dwindling light. My left hand snuck under her arm and rubbed her breast. She giggled and said, “What in the world are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Depends on what you think about it.”
She laughed and her eyes sparked in the firelight. She took my hand and led me to the tent.
Later, half-asleep, I stumbled out of the tent in my jockeys to relieve my bladder. I hoped I didn’t glow in the light of the full moon but also, what did I care? I walked some distance and looked around and saw nothing in the emptiness.
Mid-stream, I heard a snort and heavy footsteps and I turned.
The palomino regarded me with ancient eyes and pawed the ground. Its mouth hung open. Its teeth were cracked and a deep yellow. Some were missing. I reached out a hand to touch it, but it snuffled at me and flared its lips.
I stepped back and tried to calm it. “Shhh.” Its knees quivered and it did the little dance horses do in order to sit. I could see its eyes, filmed over with cataracts. I knew it was a wild animal, but I stretched out my hand again, out of a need for connection. It whinnied but didn’t stop me. Its nose was warm and soft, and I felt its heart beat slowly.
In the light of the moon, I saw a single tooth in the corner of its mouth shaped like a jagged tear. “Hello there,” I said, surprised at how steady my heart was, how calm I felt in the face of an ending life.
Michael B. Tager is a writer and editor. His work can be found at michaelbtager.com. He is mostly vegetables.