The following is an excerpt from LaToya Watkins’ piece “Cutting Horse” in McSweeney’s Quarterly Issue 51. To read the whole thing, buy the issue here. You can also subscribe and never miss another story.
This horse being in my backyard got me in some kind of trouble. That much I know. Since I got home from work, I been sitting back here flipping between news channels, watching this woman, her dude, and the laws on the national stations and folks looking for this horse on the local ones.
It was seven horses got out the gates of them stables around the corner, but she the only one still ain’t back with them. Now they saying she been stolen. Say they received reports that the suspect, a black male, holding the horse in the area. The Rowlett police chief told the cameras they got to proceed with caution ’cause they don’t want the horse life in no more danger than it already is.
And I’m thinking, Who put horse stables in the middle of the suburbs anyway? When me and my cousin Moochie stacked our paper long enough to buy our land, we went out past Lubbock city limits, out there by the hog pens, and built our stables and shit there. You do that to give the horses room to roam, to feel wild, to feel kind of free. Ain’t no room for all them horses on that little patch of land around the corner. All it is is a little corner. Not even two acres. Our horses never ran, closed gate or open. Forty acres of land was enough for them to feel free.
Them sirens, the way they going off in the distance, don’t make me move from my loveseat, from my special place under the tarp-tent I set up last spring. My tarp-tent ain’t nothing real neat or special. It’s more like a sloppy fort that I done set up in the middle of the yard. Got four sturdy wooden beams from the hardware store and just draped the blue tarp over them, nailing it to the top corners and letting the rest hang down like a pharaoh hat. Like I said, it ain’t nothing special, but I like it and it’s mine.
Instead of getting up and running, trying to get where somebody need me to be, do what somebody need me to do, I take a drag of the blunt I rolled earlier and keep my eyes focused on the TV screen. This weed make me cough, though. It’s some good shit. Them boys on Parker Circle always got good shit.
Through all that, the sirens and the coughing, I keep my eyes on the woman on the TV screen I got sitting on the stand right in front of me. She yelling at the police that’s hovering over her. She mad about how they done slammed her and her dude down on the cement; she got her arms spread out, her hands flat against the ground, and her mouth going. Her dude got the side of his face to the ground and his hands already bound behind his back. He quiet. Mouth closed. Almost like he dead, but ain’t nobody been shot yet.
“See. You see my hands? They on the ground. Don’t shoot,” she saying to the police officer that just cuffed her dude’s hands. “We unarmed, y’all,” she say to whoever videoing the whole thing. “We ain’t done nothing. They messing with us for nothing.”
The camera zoom in close to her man face. His eyes look empty. Look shook, like while all these scared men drawed on him, he scared, too, like he remembering what happed to Michael and Eric and Alton and Philando and all of them. I’m remembering them, too. Looking at him all scared, I’m remembering them, too.
I turn my eyes to the blunt, mostly ’cause I know what happen next. Hold it out in front of me and look at it like I can’t believe I got it in my hands. I’m looking at it like I ain’t roll it myself, like I ain’t never seen one. “Damn,” I say. “This some good shit.” And I mean it.
I work hard loading them packages part-time for UPS every morning, and this here, this blunt be the best part of my day. This the part I work to get to all morning long. This the part where I connect with me, with who I used to be. Every day, I can’t believe I survived and made it to this part.
I hear the sound of gunshots firing from the TV, but I don’t turn my head back to it. I don’t want to see it. It’s the real reason why I turned my eyes to this blunt. I done watched this ten times today already and I don’t want to watch it again, especially when I think about them sirens out on the street. How they looking for me.
Instead of looking at the screen, I look out to the corner of the yard at the horse, and think about how a hour ago this beautiful beast just pranced up to the orange tarp I put up on the side of the fence I tore down. She a liver chestnut color, and her coat shine like rusty pennies. That shine, that mane, all of it remind me of home.
I think about my cowboy hats and how people used to laugh ’cause I was part gangster, part cowboy. How I loved breeding horses but I needed the game to do it. I think about what I gave up to be here. And I wonder what all this mean. Why this horse brought all her trouble to me.
A hour ago, I sat on my loveseat, tugged at a blunt with my teeth, and spat paper speckles on the ground. I heard my wife car start up from the other side of the fence, the side that’s closed in, and I kind of froze. Sat there holding the blunt between both my index fingers and thumbs, like a taco, until I heard her car back out and drive off.
Cole, my wife, ain’t come outside to tell me she was leaving. In fact, she ain’t come and look for me at all after she made it in from work a few hours earlier, but that’s a normal thing these days. She mad with me and I’m tired of her. She want to finish undoing me so I’ll be like she want me to be, but I won’t let her. I quit peeling parts of myself off after I realized I was the only one doing the peeling. She was keeping herself. Everybody around us keeping theyself. I’m the only one can’t be me.
I don’t know where she left to. She try to make her storming out mysterious most days. She might’ve gone blazing toward the baby day care to pick him up before it close or to the grocery store to get something to cook tonight.
I know her lips was poked out and steam was flowing from her ears. And I know she probably called her momma to complain that she sick of me. That she should of married up, not down. That I ain’t never gone be the man she want me to be.
When I was sure she was gone, I licked the edges of the blunt and curled it tight into itself. Then I picked up the lighter from the lawn table I pulled under the tent last spring, and I held the blunt under the lighter until it was dry. That’s when I smiled. Right after that, the horse pranced up.
This horse that done made her way to my yard got a shiny coat. Somebody take good care of her, but that don’t mean she don’t know she captive. She been working on that same patch of grass since I opened the gate and let her back here. She ain’t no gypsy horse like the ones I loved breeding. Them still the most beautiful beasts to me. All that mane look like ponytails all over they bodies. And we kept ours looking fresh, like they was for shows or something. We pay the hood beautician, Lulu Shepherd, good money to come out and style and condition they mane every week and we fed them like kings. But they wasn’t no real show horses. We couldn’t be part of that world. We just rode them and showed them off in our hood. Riding the kids, Juneteenth parades, and birthday parties on the East Side. They made our folks happy. Feel like somebodies sometimes. The illegitimacy of our business might of kept us out of the show world, but it didn’t keep them good old boys from buying my gypsies. My horses was everything.
This one look like a quarter. Them some nice horses, too. News folks say all seven of them cutting horses. I wonder if these city news reporters even know cutting about more than competitions and stuff. I wonder if the owners even know how important cutting was out on the open range. Folks around here think cutting all about sport, but that ain’t where it started.
Cutting horse born to judge, to discern, and most folks, like them around the corner, got them sitting under some panel being judged. Cutting horse know which cattle need branding or sick or any other thing a cow can’t open his mouth and say. Know how to read other beasts and move they minds, master them. My granddaddy used to say you make your horse your friend, not your servant. That way they want to do stuff for you. Horse don’t want no master ’cause they masters all on they own. Specially cutters. Them folks, the ones looking for the horse and the ones reporting it stole, don’t know how much this here horse know, how much she discern. They don’t know she know they hearts.
I wonder what made them horses leave the way they did. On the news, they played a video somebody took. Them horses crossed Rowlett Road, and that ain’t no low-traffic street, but they crossed it without a care in the world. I mean, they busted out that fence and ran pretty to the empty lot next to the Shell gas station across the street from they ranch. Them cars was going crazy, too. Pulling over. Getting out. Snapping pictures like they ain’t never seen no horse.
I didn’t find out nothing about it till she was already in my yard, lost in that patch of grass. She showed up just like that, in the middle of my watching another black person die before the whole world. From the gap between my fence tarp and the ground, I watched her hooves prance up and then come on around the side to my closed gate and wait for me to open it, like she knew exactly where she was going. When I opened it, she come in like she was invited or something. Come right in and walked by me and went to that very spot she stuck in. I left the gate open for her to leave, but I ain’t cut the yard in a while, so she still busy grazing.
“Guess you ain’t going back to your people,” I say to the horse from my loveseat. She don’t look up. She just keep with the grazing. “All right then,” I say. “That’s what you want.”
This my first time ever living in a white neighborhood, and I knew I hated it when my wife looked at the Realtor, smiled, and said, “Yes, Aimee. This is it. This is the one we’ll make an offer on.” She took one look at how the steps of the front porch ascended and said, “Wow. First time I’ve seen something so breathtaking. I feel like royalty. Right, Ridley?” When we finished the tour of the inside and was spit out the back door to the backyard, I nodded my head. Something about the smallness of it, thirty-by-thirty in all, made me think I could live in this place. Be happy in this place.
Now I can hear the police sirens out on the street. I can’t see no laws yet, though. Not from the alley. Not from behind the fence tarp. They ain’t made it to me yet, but I know they coming.
Cole hate how much time I spend in the backyard, but she don’t never give me credit for how it used to be. How I was for her that year we was dating and them first two years of our marriage. She don’t never thank me for how quick I stopped selling drugs after we met. For how I stopped wearing cowboy hats and boots ’cause she didn’t like it. Thought it was country. She don’t never talk about how I had my gold teeth removed and got implants in the front to cover up the smallness of my teeth from where they had been filed down for the golds.
I do anything she wanted back then. She was everything to me. Didn’t matter that she snore like a freight train or snort when she laugh. I ain’t care about her turning her nose up at folks when we rolled through the hood. My sister called her bougie and my boys thought she was poison. And it pissed all of them off how she called me Ridley instead of RJ or Don Juan, like everybody else did. But ain’t none of that shit matter to me. I ain’t ask her to change nothing about herself. I ain’t never wanted her to either. Them pretty brown eyes and that sugar-brown skin was everything to me. She talked proper and knew random shit and all that had me lost in her. She don’t talk about none of that, though.
She hate how I done pitched this tent. How I took the loveseat she threw out last spring, covered it with thick plastic, and put it under my tent. She don’t like that I spent almost a thousand bucks on a waterproof TV and put it out here with me. That I run cords from the back porch and stay out here most of the time. That I bought a space heater to keep myself warm through the winter and a high-powered fan for the summer. I pass most of my time sitting out here watching animal channels and black men die or reading books about animals and black men dying. She think all I be out here doing is smoking, but she don’t know. That she think that mean she don’t know at all.
In my mind, I done spent too much time trying to change myself for Cole. Trying not to be Ridley Johnson from West Texas. Ridley Johnson who hustled his way to the ranch he always wanted. Who everybody knew as Don Juan the gypsy horse breeder. Who everybody knew sold the best shit in Lubbock. Who everybody knew always loved horses and ranches and who hustled, honest and fair, till he had his own.
Dude on the TV crying and snot running out his nose, and I’m having a hard time seeing him broke down like that. He trying to talk, tell his story, and his eyes look even more shook than they did when he was lying down for the police with his girl. His eyes sit far apart, like they trying not to be on the same face, and his tears coming back just as quick as he wipe them away and he stuttering out, “We wasn’t doing nothing. Creshia talk a lot. Fire off at the mouth, but she a good woman. Don’t deserve to die ’cause she say what she want.”
A woman, a older one, rubbing his back and telling him it’s gone be okay. But dude crying and saying, “We was just walking our baby to school. We ain’t got no car, so we got to walk her to school. We wasn’t even doing nothing to make them slam us on the ground in the first place. Now she gone. She gone.”
Latoya Watkins’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch, Kweli Journal, Passages North, Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and scholarships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, and Kimbilio Fiction. LaToya writes and teaches in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.