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That old coot, Hondo, is riding his horse down Main Street again. I grab my latte from the cashier, burning my fingertips on sloshing coffee as I push through the café door. Outside, dawn peeks through an overcast sky and lays gold on the street, the storefronts. Winter chills my face, loose flakes of colored paper and silver tinsel float through the air—the remnants of New Year’s—and I think the day is going to be slow and easy even though I have the whirlies and want to puke. 

Other townies gather on the sidewalk in the early morning before the shops open.  Somewhere, a church bell makes music. We watch a one-man parade.

A cone hat sits crooked on Hondo’s bald head, and he has woven pastel ribbons into the braids of his long gray beard. The reigns drop around his horse’s neck and he rides free-hand, banging a copper pot with a spoon. 

“Good morning good morning!” He runs the words together without breath. 

Hondo’s been riding illegally down Main Street every year for almost a decade since he rescued the horse from a farm where it huddled from rain in a rotten barn, ankle-deep in mud, skin marred with open sores and hungry flies. The newspaper reported the former owner was eighty-five, stricken with severe dementia, barely able to care for his own body let alone that of a thoroughbred. Hondo, a plumber at the time, made the discovery when the elderly man called him to fix a toilet that was not broken.  

Ours is a small town surrounded by an open expanse of farm field, so no one’s too bothered if Hondo rides his steed. I don’t know how much longer he’ll get away without getting arrested and paying fines, though, given the safety issues. 

But for now, the man is happy and free and drunk as hell.

A plump woman wrapped in a lemon-yellow shawl comes up behind me, pinches my jacket sleeve, says that I left my bag and purse on the corner table. The skin around her pale eyes has wrinkled into leather, and she’s shrunken with age. 

“Awww, now don’t you forget your shit, honey.” 

Instantly, I love the way she says honey. As if I were twelve and not twenty-five. I’ve never heard a woman say honey in that motherly, clichéd, big-hair Jersey way. Not to me.

“I’ll get them in a minute.” I reassure her with a smile. No one’s going to steal a molecular biology textbook, and I don’t have money or identification in my purse today. Just a bag of throat lozenges.

The woman smells like cigarettes and mint. She sips coffee from a plastic tumbler, and  some of it dribbles down her chin onto her shawl. She sees my dazed stare and breaks our silence. 

“Is Hondo up to his stunts again?”

“He is. I like watching him. He’s a strange good soul,” I say. I tell her I already know Hondo’s story because, in a way, it is also mine. I tell her I love Hondo more every year. I must sound crazy.

“Hondo and I went out to theaters and bars for a time. When we were young,” the woman says. “He could be a real prig when he wanted, but he’s a softie, too. A drama queen.”

“Oh?  I didn’t know that part of the story.” 

Hondo drops the pot and spoon on the pavement, and removes a flask from within the folds of his thick bathrobe. He drinks. Liquid, warm and fiery, drips down his chin and stains his beard. He tickles his horse’s ears.

I try to make conversation.

“Hope he’s at least wearing underwear under his bathrobe.”

“Speak for yourself, honey.” The woman licks her teeth. 

Hondo sings “Auld Lang Syne.” The horse, packed with wiry muscle, sways with his voice. Across the street in front of an Italian take-out joint, burly men in denim overalls wait for the bus. They clap and cheer. 

“Sing it, brother! Sing it louder!” 

Some laugh at Hondo but most laugh with him. He is family.      

“What a song,” I say. “Think about how old that song is, the countless times it’s been sung. It never gets dull.”

The woman nods and smiles, offers me some of her shawl for warmth. With a wave, I politely decline. 

“My parents were from Germantown, Philadelphia, you know,” she says. 

I tell her I didn’t know that, and realize how silly I seem. Or inept. Or something. The woman pays no mind. 

“I got this photo of them from 1923, taken a year before they married. They were young and snippy. Mother in her black flapper get-up, a feather fastened in her hair. Father in a suit and bowler hat.” She chuckles. “On the back of the photo, in cursive, she wrote the lyrics of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ Who knows why?”

“Maybe your mother didn’t want to forget,” I offer, and the woman shrugs. 

“Doubtful. She remembered everything. Addresses and phone numbers, state capitals, recipes, what weeds grew where, the number of times I snuck out of the house to fuck around with Hondo.” She laughs. “You name it, that woman remembered. That mind came from sturdy stock.” 

Her voice slips into deep silence. She mumbles something about her parents and the people she used to love, and I think she’s trying to tell me something more, whether she realizes it or not.  

I tell her she’s lucky. 

“I suppose that’s true.”  

We watch Hondo do an encore, raising his arms to the clouds like some magician, booming his opera as he passes a corner grocer with crates of ripe green apples left in the cold.  The thoroughbred neighs, shakes its body from muzzle to rump, breaks into a trot. As the horse veers over to the apples, Hondo tugs on the reigns, and rights the path.

But the horse insists on stealing, and the woman at my side, who may be as aged as Hondo, giggles as horse and rider take a couple of apples for their travels.   

Hondo tips his glittery cone hat to me, says, “Howdy do?”

I say nothing.  If I try to talk, I’ll choke.    

The song gets me every year, especially the way Hondo sings it—throaty and roaring and pretty, as if he were born from pubs or woods. I don’t cry anymore, but if I were going to, I’d want it to happen on Main Street, in front of everyone, under a slight dusting of snow. In front of Hondo. In front of this minty, smoky, lemon-woman. 

I haven’t cried since my mother picked up and left. I don’t have a father. My brother  and I were raised by foster parents since kindergarten. I tell friends we were raised by wild dogs. 

My brother is now strung-out and shivering his frailty away in rehab. I can’t trace the rest of our family.

I give the woman the gist of my story because she’s here. She pats my shoulder.

“So, do you go to school, honey?”

“Yeah. I’m finishing up a Bachelor’s in biology. And I waitress. Eventually, I’d like to be a pediatrician.”

“Wonderful. You’re working with both worlds.” She tugs my sleeve again. “Learn what you can, take as much as time as you need.”

We chat about Hondo as we watch him tip his hat to a bench in front of a vacant barber shop. His story has a way of energizing townies in the retelling.

Hondo. A man of many birthplaces. My favorite is the Kamchatka Peninsula. As children, we’d tell stories in someone else’s bunk bed of Hondo’s rearing among a population of brown bear, how the matriarch saved the boy from tattered swaddling in a glade of frozen forest.  Took him into her jaws, tenderly, so as not to crush his little screaming body. He suckled her, lost in a thicket of underbelly fur. 

This image sickened the younger kids. Babies don’t drink bear milk, they’d say. Or do they? And of course, we bullies nodded.

To children who don’t have parents to tell them stories, Hondo, the only man alive on the outskirts of town, the man who rarely talked, the man with the glass eye—was a paper boy, a used car salesman, a bartender, electrician, philosopher, trapeze artist, sailor, big game hunter, prize fighter, revolutionary, and artist of silk and beads. 

“He was a goddamn plumber!” the woman says.

And I say, “I know. But occasionally, telling lies is fun.”

The woman hands me a tissue from her coat pocket and smiles. 

A police cruiser turns near our corner, its lights flashing red and blue as it rolls up behind our beloved bum and his horse. The officer waves for him to stop, to get off, turn over the reins and the whiskey, but Hondo pats the thoroughbred’s mane and neck, strokes the ribbon in his beard, and then—what I’ve been waiting for—our man Hondo flashes a grin. His gold tooth glints in the early light. 

They gallop down the road and disappear. 

Behind an abandoned factory with shattered windows and graffiti brick, near the edge of a shallow river, there is a place where suburban woods, ones that haven’t yet been bulldozed, part into a trail. Hondo and his horse find their way home. So the story goes.

That is what I’ll tell my own children. 

The men in overalls clap and cheer, and the officer shakes his head and drives away. 

“Hondo never fails to entertain, does he?” the woman says. “Oh well, you have a good day, honey.” She crosses the street and boards the bus. 

I call out to her, but she does not look at me. I would’ve liked to know her name and hear her say honey one more time. I would have liked to hear her side of the story, and write it down, too.   

 I finish my coffee, raise my cup to the quiet neighborhood, to Hondo, to the lemon-woman, and whisper my thanks. The nausea hasn’t subsided, but even so, I step back inside the café, sit at my corner table, and read what must be read.           

 

      



Jackie Cassidy earned an MA in Writing from Rowan University, and is currently engaged in graduate study in the field of Speech-Language Pathology. When she is not studying, she is writing, painting, and catching up on sleep.
 




 I wrote Hondo over two years ago, caught in one of those rare spells where the mind’s eye and the written word find common ground. Hondo is an echo of the many stories my parents told me when I was a child, stories that I cherish more and more with age. As I get older, the echoes of their stories only grow louder—and I not only hear, I listen. But how many stories am I missing? How many stories do we all miss? No way to tell. I suppose Hondo is just as much about searching for the present as discovering the past. Sometimes we even find the present in the past.      





 





  


Copyright 2009