I had this pretty Indian pony that I rode through the school yards when I wanted to run faster than the boys who chased me so they could kiss me. I called my pony Paint and he ran like the wind, I would have to hold onto his mane just to stay on. Most times I would ride him home from school just trotting along looking at all the apartments, reassuring him when the traffic got heavy at the crosswalks. He’d get a little nervous and kick up his feet, but I could quiet him down with my voice. When I’d get home I’d leave Paint in the backyard and then go into our apartment. We lived downstairs and the Ehlerts lived upstairs. The back hall connected the apartments and our door was never locked.
I was usually glad to be done with school and change into my play clothes of soft tee shirts and shorts. I was pretty good about sticking around the house till Mom got home. I liked doing these books that had dots and they helped you learn the alphabet, numbers, stuff like that. You’d have to draw a line from dot to dot until you connected them all, then a picture would appear.
This one time Mr. Ehlert must have come in, I can’t really remember how it happened but I know he was in our apartment and nobody else was there. He lifted me onto his lap and put my legs on the outside of his and then he spread his knees so that my legs spread too and he pulled my underpants away from my leg and put his big finger “down there.” I remember his voice saying stuff like, “Isn’t this nice,” while he rubbed his finger inside. But I didn’t think so.
I didn’t tell my mom for a long time. But it was okay cause after that when I came home if I was alone and heard him above I would sneak into the basement and hide underneath the basement stairs. They were the kind of stairs that you could see between the slats, straight out into the backyard. I could see his big dark legs and heavy boots come down the stairs and go out to the backyard where our poor dog, Blackie, yelped when he kicked him but he never found Paint.
When we moved from there I finally told my sister about Mr. Ehlert and she laughed at me so hard we both started to cry. We moved a lot. I went to every single elementary school in our city, it was great. By the time I got to junior high, I knew everybody and that’s when I told my mom about Mr. Ehlert. She didn’t react much but she did say, “Don’t tell your dad, he would kill him.” I felt good when she told me that.
I didn’t ride Paint that much anymore but I always liked animals, they were quiet, like me. Mom talked to the owner of a local pet store and I was hired to clean the bird cages and feed them as well as the little hamsters, guinea pigs, and mice. The fish were temperamental and they had a big sign on the glass, DO NOT TAP ON THE GLASS. I didn’t do anything with the fish. There were advantages to working at the pet store. I got a special deal on this one little albino mouse who only had one eye, the other mice had picked on him and chewed on his tiny ears until he was bloody. I took him home and let him have the run of our front porch until I couldn’t find him anymore. They kept my two guinea pigs when we went on vacation for free. The girl guinea pig was getting fat with babies when I left. When I got back they said she had three babies but only one had lived. I was sure they kept her other two to sell but I never said anything.
I had my eye on these two mourning doves. They came as a pair because they loved each other. My mom said I could get them but what was I going to keep them in? Cages were expensive. Mom said maybe Mr. Ehlert, our old neighbor, who happened to be a carpenter, could make a cage for them.
I never understood why she insisted I go with her to pick up the cage. She said it was important for me to thank Mr. Ehlert. I felt so weird, but she insisted and I wanted a place for those birds. He built a heavy wooden one using smooth dowels for the bars, but I guessed he couldn’t figure out how to make a door. It was a real pain to get the birds out of the cage so I gave the doves back to the store.
Lots of stuff happened after I got rid of the love birds. I pretty much forgot about Paint. My Mom got Mr. Ehlert’s daughter a job at her place but it didn’t work out. His daughter had really bad B.O. and her hair was always smelly and greasy. Mom said people didn’t even want to get near her. I wondered if she had to hide sometimes too.
And then my dad died. I woke one night to the sound of men’s voices as they carried my dad down the stairs from his bedroom and put him in an ambulance. Mom said he woke her up scratching himself, saying there were bugs all over him. I went to see him at the hospital. I learned he had had a stroke and the doctors said he was brain dead but when I held his hand and said, “If you can hear me dad, squeeze my hand,” I’m pretty sure I felt his hand get closer on mine. I was working as a long-distance operator then and I remember coming out of work this one night. It was warm and windy which was odd for January, it felt like spring and I wanted to sing. When I got home my mom told me my dad had died. She said, “It’s best. He would have been a vegetable.” I wore his white socks for a week after he died, he couldn’t wear colored socks because of his athlete’s foot. I didn’t cry much.
Months later when I was at work I couldn’t stop crying, they finally sent me home for the day.
I got married and had kids. I loved having kids, one after another till there were five. This one time when they were all little I took them to the big wooded park near us. We were walking along this dirt path when I turned around and who should be standing there as beautiful as ever but old Paint. I swung my leg over him and he started prancing impatiently, he was ready to run. While I steadied Paint I told my kids they could have their own horses too and showed them how to get on theirs and how to steer a pony.
We all galloped down the path through the trees with the sunlight and shade.
And then my kids left, little by little, and I had to find something new to do.
I went to art classes. This one teacher thought I was pretty good at art. The more she praised me the more I tried to please her. It was kind of a vicious circle that got smaller and smaller until there I was in the middle with nowhere to go. I started to think the teacher was after me, didn’t she know I was married? She kept telling me how great my art was but I knew what she wanted, I could just tell. One day in class I signed my painting Delmar. She says, “Who’s Delmar?” I said, my father, and she started leaving me alone but I had to stop going to class that spring, I wasn’t trusting myself, I kept hearing sirens going off and thought maybe that’s because I was in hell.
One thing though, my father had finally come to my rescue.
That spring I spent a lot of time kneeling in my backyard so I could get a good look at the pale green sprouts pushing up out of the dark earth and at the busy little bugs that scurried over clumps of dirt. I watched the birds eat the bugs and build nests and then I would hear the hungry cries of the baby birds. I started understanding the nature of things. Cowboy Boots I don’t ride Paint anymore, he follows me on my walks, just in case I should fall down or get really winded. But I still wear my boots. They’re kind of hard and pointy and they talk for me. They let everyone know that sees me that I got a horse, I live in the wilds and I am strong.
Phyllis Peterson Levine
Phyllis Peterson Levine received an Associate of Arts degree from Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in the early seventies. In 1989, she returned to Tri-C to focus on painting. Her art was shown at several galleries. After retiring from Rocky River Public Library and bartending at Playhouse Square, she took various writing classes at Tri-C, Cleveland State University, and Lorain County Community College through the Project 60 Program. She currently meets once a month with a writers’ group.