I wish I had a picture of Sadie. But even if I had a photo to go from I don’t think I’d be able to properly describe her. I remember a weatherworn face and a missing tooth. I remember her layers of clothes, faded and worn to a color similar to that of her skin. I remember the way her odor—distinct and offensive, but impossible to describe—lingered for a long time after she’d come inside to borrow our phone. And I remember her adamant warning that came every year in March:
“Beware the spring equinoxal,” she’d say.
Right now in Homer we’re gaining around five minutes of daylight a day. We’re looking at seed catalogs and planning our summer camping trips. The dirty snow berms on the side of the road are receding and the sun is high enough on the horizon to throw a little heat. Tasks that seemed overwhelming just a couple of months ago seem possible now.
And yet, suicide rates go up this time of year. The police blotter gets interesting and mental healthcare facilities fill to capacity. Couples who’ve held on through the winter give up and go their separate ways. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. This is a tricky time of year for lots of people.
When it comes to the spring equinox, Sadie was on to something.
I’ve been thinking about Sadie lately, wondering about her life, of which I knew very little. I was a teenager when Sadie used to make her way from the little shack across the alley to our house. But honestly, I never gave her much thought. To me she was just an eccentric, dirty old woman, poor and living in a decrepit cabin. I knew she had a husband over there, a man called Monty, but I never really got a good look at him. They just existed there, on the edge of town. When I think about it, I’m not sure how.
I asked my mom about the old couple that used to live behind us, and she told me what she knew about Sadie and Monty Holbrook.
Monty kept to himself and Sadie came around to “borry” our phone now and then. She didn’t really offer much information about herself though, until one afternoon when my brother-in-law brought a horse he’d just acquired over to our place. In the driveway he tried repeatedly to get up on the horse, but every time he tried the horse would lie down. Sadie watched all of this from across the alley, then came over and asked if she could “have a turn at that horse.” She grabbed the reins, got the horse up on its feet and in a matter of moments had the horse “doing right.”
Sadie then told my mom that she’d grown up on a horse, had in fact ridden one from Canada to Mexico with an infant in front of her and a two-year-old behind her. “No horse would dared lay down or buck with me,” she said.
After the horse incident, Sadie talked more. She said she and Monty caught and broke wild Spanish mustangs for a living and trailed them to North Dakota. She also told my mom that Monty, who was ninety years old at the time, used to run with Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch. At one point a movie producer found him and wanted to interview him, but Monty chased him off with a gun and told him to “Git.” He was afraid that if people knew who he was he’d be arrested and hung.
One Easter Sunday morning, after I’d already moved out of the house, my mom and step-dad saw smoke billowing out of Sadie and Monty’s cabin and called the fire department. It was late in March. Medics came and took the two of them to the hospital. There they were treated for mild smoke inhalation, but other than that were found to be in good health. Monty put up quite a fight though, when the hospital staff tried to get him to bathe. He was of the belief that bathing too early in the year made one susceptible to pneumonia.
After their house fire, Sadie and Monty never returned to their home. They went to a nursing home in Fruita, Colorado to live near their daughter. My mom heard that Sadie was happy there—it must have been a huge step up in terms of ease of living—but Monty didn’t like it much. He died within the year.
* * *
Sometimes we wouldn’t see Sadie for several days, but then something would change and she’d come over several times a week. During the times when she’d visit frequently, she’d watch for us to come home. We couldn’t see her peering over, but moments after we pulled into our driveway we’d see her hunched figure making its way across the dusty alley and up the stairs to our back door.
I wish I had a picture of her now to remember her face, but more than a picture I wish I had a week of afternoons with Sadie. I’d ask her what it was like to break wild Spanish mustangs. I’d ask her what it was like to be married to an outlaw. And I’d ask her to tell me exactly why she was so wary of the spring equinox.
I’m guessing she had more stories to tell.