Just a Groom

Written By:  Lesley Green Leben

In the sea of brown, I spotted my ten-year-old daughter Ava. She moved rhythmically atop her pony, Mirage, with her jaw set, face flushed, eyes focused.  A cluster of bouncing black velvet helmets passed in front of the stands, where I sat with my five-year-old son, Jake.  Ava quickly disappeared into a fog of dust and dirt; the ba-bum-ba-bum of the hooves made my little boy cover his ears.

The year was 1999. We were at the Hampton Classic, watching Ava compete in the Hunter Under Saddle competition. The Classic was one of the largest horse shows in the United States, and the unofficial end of summer for vacationers. Ava had fallen in love with horses when she was three and we took her to The Quogue Pony Farm for a walk around the ring on Cookie Little, a tiny brown pony. When she was seven, we enrolled her in pony camp at Two Trees Stables, in Bridgehampton. Two Trees or “the barn” as we called it, was home to the Bridgehampton Polo Club and so well maintained we often joked that they removed the flies by hand.

Each day that summer I drove Ava from our home in Quogue to Two Trees. That’s where I met Isidro, the head groom. He wore dusty boots and a denim shirt, his fingernails stained black. His smile was easy, and his low and gentle voice earned a deferential nod from the other grooms when he asked them to fetch a crop, hose off a horse, or find a saddle. Kids followed him around – a merry band of sweaty cherubs trailing their pied piper. I didn’t say much to him, just thanked him for getting Mirage ready or returning her to the stall.

At The Classic Jake squirmed. To distract him, I pointed to a groom in the distance exercising a pony on a long lead line. It brought to mind another afternoon when I pulled into the barn’s parking lot, the tiny stones crunching under my Jeep’s tires. The underbelly of the clouds had turned violet as the Peconic Bay swallowed the sun.  I walked towards the entrance of the barn, passing the row of attached rooms resembling a roadside motel.  “La Casa” was painted on the low green roof: the grooms’ home.  The aroma of rice and beans escaped through the small open windows, reminding me of my Spanish grandmother’s cooking.  Somewhere, a radio played salsa music. A young Mexican woman squatted next to a toddler kicking gravel.

I stopped to see if I recognized any of the faces moving about in those cramped quarters. I didn’t. The sun had conceded to a curtain of dark grey clouds, reducing the grooms to shadows.

Back at The Classic, the announcer’s voice echoed through the loudspeaker: “And first place goes to rider number 1472 on Mirage.” The crowd cheered.  I jumped up from my seat, hiked Jake onto my hip, and “excused” my way down the bleachers. Ava moved Mirage to the center of the ring to accept her ribbon as I ran alongside. But when the photographer’s assistant waved the blue ribbon in front of Mirage’s face, the pony spooked, galloping toward the ring’s entrance, where a crowd had gathered. Just before Mirage barreled into the crowd, an arm jutted out from the stands, grabbed the reins, and brought the horse to a halt.

Breathless, I reached Ava, her cheeks reddened by heat, embarrassment and adrenaline. The disembodied arm still firmly held the pony’s reins. I moved closer to the stands and the crowd parted enough for me to see that familiar smile. Isidro.

The trainer and Ava’s friends surrounded her, saying: “Congratulations, Are you ok? Wasn’t that scary? You won a blue ribbon!” Amidst the chaos, Isidro had disappeared.

A few days after The Classic ended, Ava and I returned to the barn. Thea, the manager was at the desk.

“Hi Thea. Where’s Isidro?” I asked.

Thea grimaced.

“He’s gone,” she said.

“When will he be back?” I asked, thinking he was on an early lunch break.

“I don’t know. He was deported. He’s in a holding facility somewhere in Texas,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.

“Can’t anyone get him out?”

She looked down.

“It’s so sad. He can’t even reach his family in Mexico,” Thea said.

“He has a family?”

“Of course, he sends them money every month.”

I never saw Isidro again. I think about him often. When I hear a politician say that Mexico sends us rapists, crooks, and murderers, I say no: They send us men named Isidro.