Our mother had purchased the mule as a sort of fuck-you to our father.
She and our next-door neighbor, Cindy, liked to go to the sale barn every Monday night to get away from kids and husbands for a few hours. Our mother had been talking about getting a few calves, but the timing wasn’t right. The fences were in need of repair, and she wasn’t quite ready to commit to the extra chores.
And so when a rancher called one morning to tell her about some especially beautiful calves he planned to have for sale at the sale barn, she told him she wasn’t interested.
Even so, our father, who overheard our mother talking to the rancher, made the error of telling her, “I forbid you to buy any cattle.”
And so she bought Hank instead.
Our father was not pleased, but what could he do? He hadn’t forbidden the purchase of a mule, and my sisters and I were completely enamored with our new pet.
Still, while our mother had purchased Hank to make a point, she expected him to earn his keep. Nobody gets a free ride. The problem, though, was that nobody was going to get a ride — free or otherwise.
When she’d asked the man who’d sold him whether Hank was good with children, the man said yes. In fact, the man said, Hank had been part of a carnival pony-ride crew.
And so our mother and Cindy came up with a plan: They would do children’s birthday parties. Between the two of them, they had the makings of a petting zoo: puppies, kittens, rabbits, chickens, baby goats and bottle calves. And with the addition of Hank, they also could offer rides.
So our mother and Cindy got the word out, and before long they landed their first gig.
The mother who had booked our services was the wife of some Poplar Bluff muckity-muck. Her family’s beautiful home was nestled away with the homes of all the area doctors and lawyers and similar. My sisters and I lacked the social awareness necessary to discern that the kids we were about to entertain were not our peers, but Cindy’s son, Jaret, had a knack for caste classification. “These people are stinkin’ rich,” he informed us.
Things started out smoothly enough. Although the Poplar Bluff kids lived a mere 30 minutes from us, it was was if they had never seen a farm animal before. They clamored for turns holding the rabbit or feeding the calf. As my sisters and I picked and chose who could be the next to man the bottle or play with a kitten, our mother led Hank in laps around the birthday kid’s yard.
It was an especially hot day, and after about 30 minutes our mother said she needed to stop and take a breather.
“Here, chick, can you hang on to him for a minute?” our mother said, handing me his lead shank.
Feeling floaty from the Poplar Bluff kids’ awe in my animal-handling abilities, I gladly accepted the chore.
“Let’s go, boy,” I said in a voice I hoped conveyed authority.
And go he did.
In a cunning maneuver, Hank stepped onto the back of my sneaker. As I bent to slip it back over my heel, Hank took off — across the Poplar Bluff woman’s beautiful yard and into the distance.
“Hank! Come back!” I shouted.
But Hank wasn’t coming back. Though short-legged and fat, Hank was surprisingly fast. We watched as the dun-colored mule grew smaller and smaller as he tore through lawns and gardens.
“These people are going to sue us,” Jaret announced.
A foot chase was obviously out of the question, so our mother and Cindy jumped into the truck and took off.
“Would anyone like to pet a bunny?” my sister Annie offered helpfully.
Not wanting to cause any further damage, our mother and Cindy stuck to the roads, trying their best to keep an eye on Hank and hoping that he’d soon run out of steam.
Then a couple of teenage boys in a Jeep caught sight of them and figured out what was up and decided to help in the only way they knew how: to rip through the fields in hot pursuit.
And rip through the fields they did. Hank led them in a high-speed chase through someone’s malfunctioning septic drain field, down a power easement and into a county judge’s driveway.
As the boys slowed to a respectable speed, Hank veered left and sprinted into a barn. One of the boys gave a celebratory hoot and leaped out of the Jeep and ran after him.
Finally, they’d cornered Hank.
But Hank wasn’t done. When the boys got to him, they find him fighting through the fence with the judge’s high-dollar Tennessee walking horses.
We left the Poplar Bluff birthday party embarrassed and not a penny richer. Our mother’s fuck-you to our father had become a fuck-you to us all.