Imagine a town that hardly anyone has ever heard of. Yet everyone has seen one like it. It is just before daylight and the Main Street is coming into view. There are cracks in the sidewalk with stubborn little patches of grass sticking through them. Most of the stores are boarded up, but one that isn't has a lot of naked mannequins lying around in the window. A fall breeze comes up and blows some leaves lightly against the cracked glass pane, blows the stoplight where no one is waiting, until it swings drunkenly from its cable.
Just past all this, if you look hard, you will see the fire station and the football stadium and then the interstate where something large and pitifully ugly has been put up. Something to take the place of the town. There is a fifty-yard banner stretched across the front of it that says: "Home of the new Fed-Mart Superstore."
A few miles beyond that is a much smaller sign, really about the size of a world atlas. It's nailed to a wooden gate, and you can tell by its shabby condition that it's been there a long time. The sign reads fast deer farm, but there aren't any deer around. Just a middle-aged man on a horse. He is wearing some red-checkered pajama bottoms and drinking whiskey from an upturned bottle and riding as fast as he can toward the sun. If you lived around here, you would know that his name is Woodrow Phineas McIlmore the Third. But most people call him Wood, except his mother, who calls him Woodrow. Even though Wood and Sook --- that's his horse's name --- take this same ride every morning, they are in no hurry to arrive anywhere. They already know the bright light on the horizon moves farther into the distance the nearer you get. Well, really, Wood and Dapplegreys Ultraviolet, the granddaddy of Sook, figured this out when Wood was still a boy --- it was the ride itself that was worthy --- the swift exhilaration of speed and spirit, the complete aloneness of two equestrian astronauts hurling themselves through the green space of a thousand velvet acres --- cool customers in their youth, now just two old friends trying to prove one more time that they can still ride the ride.
The boy and his horse had once set out for the sun and quickly learned what others had tried to put into words --- that becoming is probably better than being, that there is only one thing in between and that is the ride. The ride is everything --- not the arrival at some distant or imagined spot of light from which you would probably just see another spot of light and then another until you didn't know where you were or maybe you would even fall from the sky like Icarus for flying too near the sun or end up floating facedown in your swimming pool like Gatsby, who had worshipped too closely to the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. No, there was no question about it: Forget about the light. Just keep your head down and stay on the ride.
Wood felt lucky to know such a thing. And if his morning workout with Sook didn't make it clear, the walls of his study were lined with the favored novels of three generations of McIlmores. Books that were full of myopic, vainglorious fools who had not only failed to appreciate the ride, they had gotten off, like some fevered hoboes looking for Big Rock Candy Mountain, and wandered stupidly into irony, mayhem, and even the jaws of a killer whale.
That wasn't Wood. He knew what a fine meal had been laid upon his table. He retrieved the whiskey bottle from the hip pocket of his pajama bottoms and unscrewed the cap --- "Whoa, slow her down now, girl, that's the way," he coaxed Sook as she adjusted her pace to his need. He brought the flask to his lips, turning it up full tilt and draining the remainder of the whiskey inside. It went down smooth, warming him, like the maple syrup Mae Ethel used to make for his pancakes. Try as he might, he had never been able to reproduce for his own children the thick, sweet texture that flowed like a small mudslide across and then down the lightest, fluffiest pancakes ever poured on a griddle (nor could the cooks at the local Waffle House, despite his meticulous embellishments). Fluffy was not a word Wood used often but that's what they were, damnit; they were fluffy and he missed them! He missed Mae Ethel, too. For some reason he thought of her whenever he drank whiskey. Maybe that was her secret ingredient for the syrup or maybe it was just that the liquor and the woman warmed him, especially on fall mornings like this when he rode without a shirt. Ah, Mae Ethel, his jolly, all-knowing angel who was colored when he first knew her but later became black. The person who used to scoop him up like warm laundry and press him against her huge, pillowy bosom, laughing her high-pitched approval at his simplest declaration.
His parents were equally doting, but it was Mae Ethel who physically loved him up each day, squeezing his flesh, swinging him, holding him. Mae Ethel, filling every inch of the doorway with her hands-on-hips massive presence, a symphony of happy, human noise moving joyfully through the McIlmore house. Mae Ethel, who had no expectations and therefore no judgments of him other than "do right" and "be happy," and who had been born before self-esteem was discovered but had somehow managed to electrify her charge with the simple admonition, "Study hard now, Peaches." It wasn't a warning, really. It was more like a good tip. But by the time she said it, she had already filled him up with so much highly combustible good stuff, all she had to do was light the match and the boy was on fire ...