February 12, 2021
Excerpt - Valentine - Winner of the Book of the Year Award for Traditional Fiction
By Elizabeth Wetmore
Sunday morning begins out here in the oil patch, a few minutes before dawn, with a young roughneck stretched out and sleeping hard in his pickup truck. Shoulders pressed against the driver’s side door, boots propped up on the dash- board, he wears his cowboy hat pulled down far enough that the girl sitting outside on the dusty ground can see only his pale jaw. Freckled and nearly hairless, it is a face that will never need a daily shave, no matter how old he gets, but she is hoping he dies young.
Gloria Ramírez holds herself perfectly still, she is a downed mesquite branch, a half-buried stone, and she imagines him facedown in the dust, lips and cheeks scoured by sand, his thirst relieved only by the blood in his mouth. When he startles and shifts roughly against the truck door, she holds her breath and watches his jaw clench, the muscle working bone against bone. The sight of him is a torment and she wishes again that his death will come soon, that it will be vicious and lonely, with nobody to grieve for him.
The sky turns purple in the east, then blue-black, then old- bucket slate. In a few minutes it will be stained orange and red, and if she looks, Gloria will see the land stretched tight beneath the sky, brown stitched to blue, same as always. It is a sky without end, and the best thing about West Texas, when you can remember to look at it. She will miss it when she goes. Because she can’t stay here, not after this.
She keeps her eyes on the pickup truck and her fingers begin to press themselves lightly against the sand, counting one, two, three, four—they are trying to keep her from making any sudden moves, to keep her quiet, to keep her among the living for another day. Because Gloria Ramírez might not know much on this morning, February 15, 1976, but she knows this: if he hadn’t passed out before he sobered up enough to find his gun or get his hands around her throat, she would already be dead. Fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four—she waits and watches, listens as some little animal moves through the mesquite, and the sun, that small, regular mercy, heaves itself over the earth’s edge and hangs burning in the east. And her fingers keep on.
Daylight reveals miles of pumpjacks and oil-field litter, jackrabbits and barbed-wire fences, clumps of mesquite trees and buffalo grass. In piles of caliche and stacks of old pipeline rat snakes and copperheads and rattlers lie entwined, their breath slow and regular, waiting for spring. When morning has come all the way in, she sees a road and behind that, a farmhouse. It may be close enough to walk to, but it’s hard to say. Out here one mile can look like ten, ten could be twenty, and she knows only that this body—yesterday, she would have called it mine—sits in a pile of sand, somewhere in the oil patch, too far from town to see the water tank with her town’s name painted on the side, Odessa, or the bank building, or the cooling towers at the petrochemical plant where her mother works. Soon, Alma will come home from a night spent cleaning offices and break shacks. When she steps into the one-bedroom apartment that still smells of last night’s hominy and pork, and Tío’s cigarettes, when she sees that the sofa bed where Gloria sleeps is still made up from the day before, Alma might feel worried, maybe even a little afraid, but mostly she will be pissed off that her daughter is not home where she belongs, again.
Gloria scans the pumpjacks moving up and down, great steel grasshoppers, always hungry. Did he drive them as far as Penwell? Mentone? Loving County? Because the Permian Basin is eighty thousand square miles of the same old, same old, and she could be anywhere, and the only true things are her thirst and pain, and the roughneck’s occasional sighs, his teeth grinding and body shifting, the click and hum of the pumpjack just a few yards away from where she sits.
When a bobwhite begins to call its own name, the sound gently pries the morning open. Gloria looks again at the farmhouse. A dirt road slices the desert in half, a straight line moving steadily toward a front porch she is already starting to imagine. Maybe it’s close enough to walk to, maybe a woman will answer the door.
He has not moved when her fingers push the last number into the sand, a shaky one thousand. Gloria turns her head slowly back and forth, and understanding that it is her silence as much as anything else that’s keeping her alive, she wordlessly considers the pieces of her body as they appear to her. Arm. Here is an arm, a foot. The foot bone’s connected to the heel bone, she thinks, and the heel bone’s connected to the anklebone. And over there, on the ground next to the wooden drill platform, her heart. She turns her head this way and that, gathering the body, covering it with clothes that lie torn and strewn around the site, as if they are trash, disregarded and cast aside, instead of her favorite black T-shirt, the blue jeans her mother gave her for Christmas, the matching bra and panties she stole from Sears.
She knows she shouldn’t, but when it is time to go Gloria cannot help looking at the roughneck. Thin wisps of blond hair crawl out from under the felt edge of his cowboy hat. Skinny and gristle tough, he is just a few years older than Gloria, who will be fifteen next fall, if she survives this day. Now his chest rises and falls regular, just like anybody else’s, but otherwise he is still. Still asleep, or pretending to be.
Gloria’s mind skitters into this thought like a horse into a hidden skein of barbed wire. Her mouth falls open then jerks itself closed. She is oxygen starved and gasping, a fish torn from a lake. She imagines her own limbs disconnected, fleeing into the desert to be picked clean by the coyotes she heard calling to each other all through the night. She imagines her bones blanched and worn smooth by the wind—a desert filled with them—and this makes her want to shriek, to open her mouth and howl. Instead, she swallows hard and sits back down in the sand, shutting her eyes tight against both the roughneck and the sun brightening, interminable sky.
She must not panic. To panic is the worst possible thing, her uncle would say. When Tío tells a war story—and since he came home last year, every story is a war story—he begins the same way. Know what you call a soldier who panics, Gloria? KIA, that’s what. He ends his stories the same way, too. Listen, an army man never panics. Don’t you ever panic, Gloria. You panic and—he forms his index finger into a pistol, presses it against his heart, and pulls the trigger—bang. And if there is only one thing she knows for sure on this morning, it is that she doesn’t want to die, so she jams two fists hard against her mouth and she tells herself to stand back up. Try not to make a sound. Move.
Then Gloria Ramírez—for years to come, her name will hover like a swarm of yellow jackets over the local girls, a warning about what not to do, what never to do—stands up. She does not go back for her shoes, when she thinks of them, or the rabbit fur jacket she was wearing last night when the young man pulled into the parking lot at the Sonic, his forearm hanging out the open window, sparse freckles and golden hair glistening beneath the drive-in’s fluorescent lights.
Hey there, Valentine. His words took the ugly right out of the drive-in, his soft drawl marking him as not from here, but not that far away either. Gloria’s mouth went dry as a stick of chalk. She was standing next to the lone picnic table, a shaky wooden hub in the midst of a few cars and trucks, doing what she always did on a Friday night. Hanging around, drinking limeades and begging smokes, waiting for something to hap- pen, which it never did, not in this piss-ant town.
He parked close enough that Gloria could see the oil patch on him, even through the windshield. His cheeks and neck were wind-burned, his fingers stained black. Maps and invoices covered his dashboard, and a hard hat hung on a rack above the seat. Empty beer cans lay crushed and scattered across the truck’s bed, along with crowbars and jugs of water. All of it added up to a pretty good picture of the warnings Gloria had been hearing her whole life. And now he was telling her his name—Dale Strickland—and asking for hers.
None of your damned beeswax, she said.
The words were out before she could think about them, how they would make her seem like a little girl instead of the tough young woman she was trying hard to be. Strickland leaned farther out the open window and looked at her real puppy-dog like, his eyes bloodshot and ringed with shadows. She stared directly into them for a few seconds. The blue turned pale then slate, depending on how the light hit his face. They were the color of a marble you fought to keep, or maybe the Gulf of Mexico. But she wouldn’t know the Pacific Ocean from a buffalo wallow, and this was part of the problem, wasn’t it? She had never been anywhere, never seen any- thing but this town, these people. He might be the start of something good. If they stayed together, he might drive her down to Corpus Christi or Galveston in a few months, and she could see the ocean for herself. So she gave him her name. Gloria.
He laughed and then turned up the radio to prove the coincidence, Patti Smith singing Gloria’s name on the junior college radio station. And here you are, he said, in the flesh. That’s fate, darlin’.
That’s bullshit, darling, she said. They’ve been playing that album every two hours since last fall.
She had been singing it for months, waiting to hear the album, Horses, on the radio and enjoying her mother’s conniptions every time Gloria sang, Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine. When Alma threatened to drag her to mass, Gloria laughed out loud. She hadn’t been to church since she was twelve years old. She made a fist, held it in front of her mouth as if it were a microphone, and sang the line again and again until Alma went into the bathroom and slammed the door.
The Sonic was dead as hell on this Valentine’s night. Nothing and nobody—just the same skinny, jacked-up carhop who came straight from her day job and pretended not to see the same old delinquents pouring Jack Daniel’s into paper cups half full of Dr Pepper; the girl only a couple of grades ahead of Gloria who sat on a barstool behind the counter, flipping switches and repeating orders, her voice blurred by the heavy speakers; and the cook, who occasionally stepped away from the grill and stood outside smoking while he watched cars cruise the drag. And now, a tall, big-shouldered old lady let the bathroom door slam shut behind her, wiped her hands on her pants, and walked briskly toward a truck where an even older man, pole skinny and bald as an egg, sat watching Gloria.
When the woman climbed in beside him, he pointed at the girl, his head bobbing slightly as he spoke. His wife nodded along with him, but when he stuck his head out the window, she grabbed his arm and shook her head. Gloria leaned against the picnic table and snugged her hands in the pocket of her new jacket, glancing back and forth between the couple and the young man, who sat with his arm hanging out the open window, fingers tapping steadily against the side of his truck. Gloria watched the two old buzzards arguing in the truck and when they again looked at her, she pulled one hand from her pocket. Slowly, slowly she uncurled her middle finger and held it in the air. Fuck you, she mouthed, and the horse you rode in on.
She looked again around the Sonic parking lot and shrugged—nothing to lose, everything to gain—and she climbed into the young man’s pickup truck. The cab was warm as a kitchen, with the same faintly ammoniac smell of the industrial cleaners that lingered on her mother’s hands and clothes when she came home from work. Strickland turned up the music and handed her a beer, cracking it open with one large hand while his other curled around the steering wheel. Well, what do you know, he said. Gloria, I think I love you. And she pulled the heavy door closed.
The sun is lingering just above the truck’s wheels when she finally walks away from him. She does not look behind her. If he’s going to wake up and shoot her, she does not want to see it coming. Let the bastard shoot her in the back. Let him also be known as a coward. As for Gloria, she will never again call herself by the name she was given, the name he said again and again, those long hours while she lay there with her face in the dirt. He spoke her name and it flew through the night air, a poison dart that pierced and tore. Gloria. Mocking, mean as a viper. But not anymore. From now on, she will call herself Glory. A small difference, but right now it feels like the world.
Glory makes her way across the oil patch, walking, stumbling, and falling past pumpjacks and mesquite scrub. When she crawls through a hole in the barbed-wire fence and walks into an abandoned drilling site, an awkwardly written sign gazes flat-faced down upon her, warning of poisonous gases and the consequence for trespassing. You will be SHOT! When a stray piece of glass or a cactus spine pierces her foot, she watches her blood gather on the tough, impermeable ground and wishes it were water. When a coyote howls and a second answers, she looks around for a weapon and, seeing nothing, grabs hold of a mesquite branch and tears it from the tree. She is surprised by her strength, surprised she is still moving, surprised by the aching dryness in her mouth and throat, and a new pain that began as a small pricking in her rib cage when she first stood up. Now it has moved down to her belly, turned hot and sharp, a steel pipe set too close to a furnace.
When she comes to a set of railroad tracks, she follows them. When she loses her balance, she grabs onto a barbed- wire fence and falls hard into a pile of caliche rocks laid out in a long line. She studies the gravel lodged in the palms of her hands. His skin and blood are under her fingernails, a reminder that she fought hard. Not hard enough, she thinks, as she picks up a small stone and places it under her tongue, like Uncle Victor might, if he were thirsty and wandering through a desert, wondering how far away home was. At one end of the rock pile, a small marker with the words Common Grave is mounted on a steel cross. A second grave lies a few yards away, small and unmarked, the grave of a child or, perhaps, a dog.
Glory stands up and looks behind her. She is closer to the farmhouse than the truck. The wind riffles the air, a finger drawn through the grass, and she notices for the first time how still the morning has been. As if even the buffalo and blue grama grasses, thin and pliant as they are, have been holding their breath. It’s a small wind, scarcely noticeable in a place where the wind is always blowing, and surely too light to carry her voice back to him. If she speaks, he will not hear. Glory Ramírez turns and looks toward the place where she has been. For the first time in hours, she means to say something out loud. She struggles to find some words, but the best she can manage is a small cry. The sound comes forth briefly and pierces the quiet and disappears.
Word Count: 2825
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