A Horse In The Hamptons (Field Notes on a Fixer Upper)
The back door slammed like a gun shot. Adrienne jumped and grabbed my forearm. Nerves. We proceeded into the back yard to pace off where we thought the septic tank would be, based on an all but unreadable survey map, a faded document, considerably older than we were. Was this all a terrible mistake? This house was supposed to be an adventure. A fixer-upper that we could work on together. Not a bad location. Not a bad tax assessment. Might even be profitable in the long run. If it didn’t destroy our relationship first.
Adrienne awoke this morning, chronicling her fitful sleep. “I don’t think I slept two hours. Did you have to pick a place so close to a stable?” she complained.
“Honey, there isn’t a stable closer than Bridgehampton.”
“Then why did I hear whinnying all night long? Are you going to tell me that was you?”
Sleep deprivation can put anyone out of sorts. She decides we need a soil probe and drives herself into town to query the hardware store wizard.
I drag yet another overstuffed trash barrel to the curb at the end of the driveway and find myself staring at a spectacle I can’t quite make sense of. Just across the street is a small table with a tray of what looks like homemade cookies and a sign scrawled in a childish hand that reads: Bake Sale. Beside the table sits a sultry redhead wearing a fashionable wide-brim hat and sunglasses, and rapidly working her thumbs over the keypad of her phone. She sits on a tiny chair that might accommodate a six-year-old.
I fear she has noticed my staring at her, so I walk over and decide to be neighborly.
“How’s the cookie business?”
“Crummy,” she says. “How’s the renovation business? Or whatever it is you’re doing over there.”
“Endless,” I tell her and introduce myself.
She does the same. “Here. Have one,” she offers the tray to me. “On the house. You look like you need a break.”
I take one and bite into it. It’s still vaguely warm and really tasty. “Nice. My first housewarming cookie.”
She goes on to explain that she’s just spelling her little girl who needed a bathroom break. Waving her hand toward my side of the street, she says, “It’s been vacant for so long. Glad to see someone bringing it back from the dead. You know, when I was my daughter’s age, the old guy who owned your place used to give me cookies. And let me pet his animals. Pegasus was my favorite.”
“Was this part of a farm back then?” I ask her.
“No. No, he was no farmer. He was a hostler for the Long Island Railroad. At least, according to my grandmother. She had a thing for him. He loved the railroad. And he loved his animals. Especially Pegasus.”
Later that afternoon, after dozens of futile trials in which the long rod descends into unresisting earth, the soil probe finally strikes something solid. Hallelujah! We’ve located the septic tank lid. And it’s only inches below the surface. In our enthusiasm, we quickly remove the sod to uncover a concrete slab on which is etched a barely legible, single word: “gas,” followed by a date.
“Damn,” Adrienne cries out, “It’s not the septic tank; it’s a gas line.”
“But honey, we don’t have a gas line. We’ve got a propane tank.”
“Well, there was a gas line. We better call someone to have them safely dig this thing up,” she says.
The next day, a serviceman from National Grid confirms that there is not and never was a gas line on this property. He completely uncovers the concrete slab to reveal not a utility marker, but a gravestone. We’re dumbstruck. Upon closer inspection, the single word etched in the stone is not “gas.” That’s only the middle part of the longer, nearly faded word: “Pegasus.” I tell Adrienne what I had learned about that name from the cookie lady and then head across the street.
After very little prodding, our new neighbor puts us in touch with her grandmother who used to know the one-time owner of our house. Lily is in her nineties, articulate and as charming as she is wizened.
“Pegasus was a local hero,” Lily tells us, “Pete was, too. But his modesty kept him from taking any credit. So he heaped it all on his horse. His true love.”
“What did they do?” Adrienne asks Lily.
“Back in the day, the railroad used to have turntables. A roundhouse that could change the direction the locomotive was heading in. Guess they didn’t have a reverse gear back then. There was one in Riverhead and one in Sag Harbor. Other stations too. And there’d be a pit beneath the rotating track. Now, this one time, as an engine was positioned on the turntable, a welder waited in the pit below for the rotation. But something went wrong. The locomotive had just come from the fuel dock. And its tank was overfilled. Diesel fuel ran down the engine drain and into the pit where it caught fire. In an instant, it was a curtain of flames.”
“Oh my God!” Adrienne cries.
“The ladder out of the pit was engulfed and the welder had no way out. Black smoke rising. Fire department delayed. It didn’t look good for the welder. Now, this was Pete’s day off. But no matter. He’d come by to have lunch with his buddies. And he always came by horse. When Pete saw what was happening, he sprung into action. He grabbed a line and tossed it to the welder. He tied the other end to Pegasus’s draft hook.”
“He got him out?” we gasp.
“His selfless action saved that man’s life. And then, he went back in with the firefighters and saved the engine from destruction.” She pauses to collect herself. “All these years… still got a crush on the old fool,” Lily blushes with a girlish grin.
“Me too, Lily,” Adrienne confesses. Adrienne pulls out an old framed photo that we’d found on the wall of our bathroom. A gruff-looking man with slicked-back hair, wearing a fedora. We figured this was Pete. “Is this Pete, Lily? In the whole house, it’s the only thing we found on the walls. This, and a smattering of iron horseshoes.”
Lily takes the picture in her hands. She looks at the photo, then at us as if we were a clueless Hansel and Gretel. “No, dear, that’s not Pete. This is George Raft. Don’t you ever watch Turner Classic Movies?”
We take Lily and her granddaughter and her great-granddaughter out to dinner where we are regaled with more stories about this mythic figure who was so devoted to his horse that when his beloved died, he couldn’t bear to part with him, and buried the heroic Pegasus in his own back yard, never to be far from him again.
Somehow it was hard to get to sleep that night. Power of suggestion or not, now I was hearing the sounds of a horse whinnying. Must be the wind. Of course. The wind penetrating the fissures in the rotting window frames. That’s all it is. But when Adrienne grabbed my hand, I knew she was hearing it too. We were both lying in bed unable to close our eyes. Why? A man and his horse, gone now many decades, sit at the forefront of our consciousness. It’s as if we’ve discovered a kinship with him. We’re suddenly as close to Pete and Pegasus as you can possibly get… without a time machine. And the kinship feels as real as it does fragile.
Not all that unusual really. Doesn’t it happen every time we listen to Bach’s Mass in b minor? Two and a half centuries disappear and we achieve kinship with the great maestro. We reach a kinship with Tintoretto from four centuries ago any time we look at “Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples.” And don’t we actually know the man, Shakespeare, from his plays and his sonnets? At this very basic level, kinship spans time and space and boundaries and strictures and even an all-too-human failure of imagination. It’s simply the bond of humanity. So how could I be surprised to feel kinship with this house’s previous occupants? It would be a faltering not to feel it.
Not unlike a sunken tombstone, a long forgotten de Lamartine quote surfaces in my brain: “What is life but a series of preludes to that unknown song, whose first solemn note is sounded by death?”
So now… when I get up in the morning, I will raise that backyard gravestone until it’s no longer covered by grass. It will be a welcome reminder of distant kin. Of a man who loved the railroad, who loved his horse, and apparently, George Raft.
Lives occupying the very same space. Separated by time.