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The Milk House: The breaking of Bill Bailey

Ryan Dennis Published on 31 December 2015

They said there wasn’t a horse he couldn’t train.

They said the most obstinate animals are obedient to him.

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They said a horse sensed his authority the moment he stepped in the corral.

Bill Bailey was somewhat of a legend among the local equestrian community. Short, stout, with red hair and a red beard, he might at first appear more like a character out of a comic strip, but if you had a colt or a foal at the age of instruction, he was the man you wanted.

My mother had Trakehner crosses, and I watched Bill Bailey take the lead rope and command the horse with a confidence that was almost inhuman. He gave orders in a stern, deep voice, and the foal snapped to attention and circled around him with an eagerness to fulfill his wishes.

I was a wild child. In public I was quiet and polite, often receiving praise from elderly people for my gentle nature, but at home I was a monster. As a toddler, my fits lasted for days, screaming behind closed doors. At 5 years old, I told my parents that I would never find true happiness until they were both dead.

Quickly afterward, I was sat on a square bale and told to think about what I had said. When my father came back several hours later and asked if I had changed my mind, I told him that I hadn’t.

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We can laugh about it now (I think), but my parents slept lightly back then. Once, while Bill Bailey was in our home, my mother asked me to feed the dog. I told her I would not. Bill Bailey slammed his hand on the table and pointed at me. “You will listen to your mother,” he shouted.

I froze.

Bill Bailey held his gaze on me. I felt the creature inside me bow down to him. I cowered past him and fed the dog.

Years later, I was home from college to help out on the farm. My mother had a Tennessee Walker she wanted help training and called Bill Bailey. By this time his stomach was a little paunchier, and some of his red hair had turned gray.

After they were done, my mother invited him into the house for dinner, where they talked about horses and other people with horses.

My father added in when he could, but I sat there silently, perhaps still a little gun shy around the man after all these years. Mostly it was my mother and Bill Bailey catching up. At one point Bill Bailey said that he had been seeing a woman, but they had recently broken up. My mother said what a shame that was.

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Then Bill Bailey went on to tell how they had met and how he and this woman had become romantic. He described the times they had together, in increasing detail, until it was nearly a moment-by-moment account. The hours passed by – and still Bill Bailey talked at our kitchen table.

We didn’t comment on the things he said because there wasn’t much need to, nor much opportunity. When he paused, in between saying how much she had meant to him and how lonely he now was, we thought that he might go home. Nonetheless, he didn’t.

At one point, my mother rose and said she had to go to work to check on a few goats that were kidding. She was a supervisor at a correctional facility for boys, which ran a small farm. Earlier in the day, she had said the goats would be fine until tomorrow. My father and I watched her leave with transparent resentment. Bill Bailey continued, regardless.

He told us the woman was about 20 years younger than him and going blind, and he just wanted to be there for her. My father moved to the living room, hoping that any change might end the dialogue, but Bill Bailey followed him to the couch.

“I’m in love with her,” he said – and then started crying.

My family isn’t one that is used to displays of emotion. We’re usually content to allow anything dramatic to remain in subtext. In addition, I was fairly new to adulthood and generally saw other adults still as poised and logical beings. It was perplexing to see one crying on our couch.

It was even stranger that it was the great Bill Bailey. My father didn’t seem to be any more comfortable than I was, nodding his head and staring vacantly into a corner of the room. Occasionally he would make a generic comment about how life could be difficult or how when one door closes another opens, but even he cringed when he said them.

It would become an odd moment shared between father and son, both of us held hostage and equally helpless while a middle-aged man sobbed in our living room. Suddenly, the world seemed like a peculiar place.

I haven’t seen Bill Bailey since, and I haven’t heard what had become of him. I have no doubt he has mastered many mares and stallions since. Hopefully he’s happy, with someone else, and if not, just in company of horses.

Maybe he’s learned to be content as a bachelor. Either way, it goes to show that love is the most unruly animal of them all if even Bill Bailey struggled to tame it.  PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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