Terra Firma

By Kelli Jo Ford

When Reney’s adventures through the pumpjack pulse of the oil fields grew old, she’d climb the fence, wrestle the saddle off the Paint, and place the pad upside down to dry like Pitch had shown her. She might sneak an extra handful of sweetfeed to the colt or let the Blue Heeler Dan George chase her across the tops of round bales, falling down between the bales giggling when the dog came tumbling after her. From the top of the bales, it was easy to see across the Red River to the red, scrubby ridge that was Oklahoma. She watched the stormclouds that skirted them pop and play on the ridge. She waved her hands and shouted in case anybody up there was looking for her, but she never heard anything in return other than a distant roll of thunder.

If she got tired of animal company, she’d pick the hay from her hair and head toward the old farmhouse where Pitch’s mama and daddy lived. If the living room was dark except for dust-lightning glittering through the blinds, she’d tip-toe to the back bedroom. There she would crawl into bed beside Nina, click the three-way lamp to the lowest setting, and tap a finger along the row of serial killer biographies and Stephen Kings. Snuggled against Nina’s back, she squinted herself into worlds far scarier than any she knew.

Her own bed in the trailerhouse across the drive sometimes stayed made for days. Then her mom, Justine, would come up the steps after work and bang twice before coming in to tell her the crappie were biting or some such and if they hurried they could be back in time to fry fish and potatoes for late supper. Reney never failed to believe in these short evenings—her mom’s long black hair absorbing the warm sun, the beer only making her mom happy; Pitch rubbing the small of her mom’s back, showing them again and again to let the crappie take all of the minnow before you set the hook; everybody laughing when her mom’s hook came up bare. Reney remembered her mom’s words before they left Oklahoma. “We’ll be a family.”

This was something like the family she’d always wanted, the one living out these evenings when the beer brought happy and nobody was talking about steady work or trying to coerce anybody to be somebody they weren’t. These evenings, her mom seemed ready to throw out the flattened boxes stored in the racebarn and stay. When the happy spilled over and the voices grew sharp with busted promises and stresses Reney knew too much about, she’d write a note, always giving them an out. Me and Nina was going to watch a movie. Might fall asleep. Dan George would meet her on the trailer steps and bite at her legs all the way across the drive.

Pitch’s mama was the opposite of Reney’s Granny in almost every way. A tiny lady—loud and prone to delightfully creative cursing—she permed her hair at home, snipped the curls herself with her orange-handled sewing scissors. When her slipped disc acted up, she stayed woozy in the back bedroom surrounded by pill bottles and ashtrays, smoking and reading, tugging at the tiny gold pendant that hung around her neck.

Then one morning out of the blue, Reney would wake to find Nina in the kitchen flipping bacon, a cigarette pinched between her lips, ash curling over the skillet. “Garden seed,” she’d say, the pitch of her voice registering high amongst the ceiling tiles, “mice been sucking on the end of your hair, girl?”

On these days, Nina attacked the rattletrap farmhouse where Pitch and his daddy were born as if she may never have another chance to set things right. That summer she contact-papered the whole place wood-grained. Wood-grained counters. A wood-grained deep freeze and fridge. She even wood-grained the wooden kitchen chairs and the lid of the toilet seat.

It was on one of these bacon days that Reney followed Nina out the back door and down its sagging steps to the cellar. Reney raised the heavy concrete door enough for an odd rusty weight to counter the door’s heft.

“Hey, it’s got those teeth just like your necklace,” Reney said.

“Drill bit. Chews up earth and spits it out so they can ramrod a pipe into the mud and pull up money,” Nina said. “Goddamned useless now.” The mare called across the pasture to the stud. “Like most of this Shinola.”

She pushed past Reney into the dark cement room. You could hardly find a spot on the floor that wasn’t cluttered with hardened race bridles, jangly bits, or boxes of filthy, broken china. Nina opened the vent, lit a cigarette, and twirled a piece of hair around her finger as she surveyed the mess. Reney started by sorting through a box of curled victory pictures but soon stopped on a magazine with a front cover picturing a tremendous cloud of black that spouted three dancing vortices. Terrible Tuesday was written in white horror font in the middle of the main cloud.

“What’s this?” Reney asked. Nina reached for the book.

“It was a storm. A terrible storm. Fifty people or more died. Wiped out half the town.”

“Were you there?”

“Ferrell was. Or I thought he was. Thought it killed him.”

Nina flipped the book closed and put it in the trash pile.

“But he was okay?” Reney asked.

“Turned out he’d gone over to Ross Downs to see Pitch ride. Fingers too by-God busted up to call home, but yes, you could say he was okay. Go get us some trash bags.”

When they were finished, the cellar looked like the perfect little jail cell. Coal-oil lamps separated two springy cots covered with handmade quilts, and they’d maneuvered a bookshelf down the steps where Nina stored jars of potatoes and green beans put up in a previous fit of activity. They bought a case of tuna fish and a big tub of Jif, so much more festive than the black and white commodities from her Granny’s that Reney imagined disasters that would lead her to unscrew the lid and break the smooth surface with her fingers.

Before she hauled out the trash, Reney snaked Terrible Tuesday out of the bag and hid it between the cot springs and mattress. After much thought, Reney put Huck Finn on the shelf, leaving It and the John Wayne Who-evers for life above ground. She didn’t question their preparations.

*

Once the cellar was clean, Nina groaned and grasped at pill bottles when Reney crawled into the bed. Now, she threw an arm over her eyes if Reney turned on the light. Reney began to experiment with a limp. She pressed her hand to her hip like Nina when she hobbled to the bathroom until she was unsure if her pain was imaginary. When she wasn’t on the Paint Horse, she stayed in the cool of the cellar, leaving the door open, reading, reading, reading. She began to keep her eye out for driftwood. She squirreled away rope from round bales and stashed cans of tuna here and there. She saw warnings on the horizon, kept careful count of the seconds between lightning and thunder.

When the trailer began to strain against the tie-downs or the shutters of the farmhouse began to bang, Reney was the first and usually the only one to go to the cellar. She’d light a lamp and spread herself facedown across a cot, readying her bones for the freight train sound of a tornado. She whispered pained prayers for her patchwork family who stayed inside doing dishes, banging on the television, loving, fighting. As the storm calmed, she never crept up the narrow stairway and leaned her shoulder into the door until she was certain it had passed.

*

There wasn’t any notice, of course. Pitch, laughing at something her mom said, had hardly stepped onto the farmhouse’s front porch to check the clouds when the storm door slammed against the outside wall. The hinges wrenched and moaned terribly against the frame, and Reney swore she felt the house wobble under her feet like the hull of the v-bottom boat did when she stood up too fast. Then, just as quick, the wind reversed course and sucked the door shut. For a moment, Nina, Reney, and her mom stared dumbly at one another, clutching Canasta hands, mouths agape in the glow of Coors Light cans and Nina’s special apricot brandy.

It was Nina who reclaimed time, shouting, “My God!” and throwing herself to the door. The metal double-seater rocking chair hung in the splintered limbs of an oak tree. The tire swing had wrapped itself around the naked trunk before coming to a slapping rest, straining against the rope, and blowing back the other way. There was nothing at all on the porch, which before the storm had been cluttered with oil field detritus, muddy boots, horseshoes, and all manner of collected crap dragged in by Pitch and his daddy. Most especially, there was no Pitch. All that was left was a fading roar and the black-orange glow of the evening sky.

Reney’s mom hauled her past rattling window panes and out the door. Nina bowed in the wind on the last step, shouting Pitch’s name. Reney grasped her cuff as they bounded past. Heavy drops of rain pelted them, sparsely at first. By the time they reached the cellar door, the rain beat their bodies so violently that Reney could not hear what her mom was shouting, could barely see her mouth O-ing words into the storm. Reney strained toward the sky looking for some sign of Pitch’s boots, hoping to catch the flash of his grin or the sound of his voice as he passed over, imagining him huddled over, going to the bat, riding the cloud to victory.

Before she knew it, she was clinging to her mother, crashing into the hole. Their wet bodies mashed together, pulling and grunting into the cramped, cool stairwell. It took both of them to hold onto the concrete door so Nina could latch it. Reney could hear Nina sobbing once the storm was muffled, could hear her fumble open the cellophane of a new pack of Merits.

A lighter clicked. Nina’s face glowed, then darkened.

“Give me one,” Reney’s mom said. The thin, yellow light led them down the steps. The lighter clicked again, and Reney’s mom was briefly illuminated.

Reney felt for the lamp, her fingers lifting the glass bulb and rolling the wick by habit. When the light settled on the room, there was Pitch huddled in the far corner. He held his knees tight to his chest, and when he saw them, he took a deep breath and spat between his legs.

“The wind,” he said. “It took a pumpjack weight right off the porch. Spiraled up like a piece of paper.”

There was a moment when everything, to Reney, seemed like it was going to be fine. And some seconds that her mom, too, must have felt relief. Nina rushed to Pitch and took his head to her tiny hip and rocked him there, saying “My boy, my baby, my baby boy” over and over like that.

“We thought you were gone,” Reney’s mom said. “Thought the wind took you.” An accusation. She tapped the cigarette with her index finger three times and reached to open the vent. The night flashed through the slats. Reney waited for thunder.

“Thought I was goddamn going to die,” Pitch said.

“Did you think about anybody but yourself?”

Nina put a hand on the small of her back and shuffled over to a cot and laid down. She twirled a curl and hung her cigarette hand off the cot. Reney’s mom didn’t say anything else, which to Reney was the weirdest thing she could have done. Instead she clicked on the radio and started spinning the knob across the static. Pitch dusted off his backside, and Reney thought he might say sorry.

Outside, the sky still popped and shook the window with thunder bumpers, as Pitch called them, but the roar of the wind was already letting up. Reney still hadn’t heard the freight train. She took her opening.

“Did you see it, Pitch?”

“Just that weight. It was more the sound and the force of the thing.”

“If you’d a had your lariat, you could have roped it.”

Pitch poked her in the ribs. “Maybe held it until you got there to tickle the damn thing into submission.”

“You think Dan George is okay? The horses?”

“Animals have their ways.”

“Two kids,” Reney’s mom said, her eyes still on the radio that wasn’t picking anything up.

Pitch cut his eyes.

“I said I didn’t know I was getting two kids out of this deal. But I should have.”

Reney’s heart lurched. She slumped over to the end of Nina’s cot. Before she could sit down, Pitch kicked the bookshelf, knocking a low shelf loose. Cans of tuna scattered across the floor and the Jif jar busted. His quick violence still surprised Reney. She’d only seen it on occasions when her mom wouldn’t stop nagging, and once when the stud kicked him bad in the thigh. Pitch looked at the mess in the floor and shook his head, like he was trying to decipher something just beyond reach.

“You made it clear my pockets ain’t big enough.” His face didn’t look like Pitch anymore. “Now I ain’t man enough to fight off a tornado, so I imagine you ought to start taping together boxes like you’ve been threatening to do since you got here. If you want to get back across that Red River, I ain’t stopping you.”

Reney wondered what her Granny was doing. She thought of the soft one-dollar bills her Granny had sent for her birthday, the sweet chicken scratch letters. She remembered the last time she’d talked to her on the phone and how she’d told her Granny she had to go because she wanted to help Pitch wash the stud, how she’d cried that night in bed feeling bad about it. Each night since, she would dream her Granny’s brown skin into being, feel the curve of her arthritic fingers in her own. They’d take their cane poles to the Lawson’s pond and catch perch for supper, and her Granny would wipe cornmeal on her big, aproned belly. Then together they’d sing the sun up. Always too early, Reney would wake in North Texas. Even as she wiped her Granny from her eyes, the sound of the stud blowing snot and stamping outside her window always made Reney smile.

The wind grabbed the heavy door from Pitch and slammed it against the ground before he could wrestle it shut. Maybe for good, Reney thought. She started after him, but her mom caught her. She pulled Reney’s face into her chest. Reney tried not to cry, tried to banish the pictures of twirling vortices carrying Pitch away. Her mom whispered sorry.

“He promised me,” her mom said. “When I quit my job to come down here, he promised me. Hell, Nina, we aren’t hardly bringing in enough to keep the place you gave us lit. There’s a rig going up over by Sunset, but I can’t get him over there to apply. He’s not lazy. What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s just like his daddy,” Nina said. “Don’t want to be tied down.” She tapped another cigarette out, lit it, and sat up. She was so tiny her toes only brushed the concrete floor. Ferrell wasn’t hardly ever around. Tonight he was on a trip to Kansas looking at a mare nobody could afford. He was big fun when he was there, always trying to get her to do the circle game and making Reney look, then giving her a playful thump on her arm when she did. Nina cackled at his foolery when people were around. Other times, she mostly shook her head, if she responded at all.

“Ain’t never going to change,” Nina said. “He’ll love you, but he’ll be looking for a runner or running that river until the day he dies. There’s a lot to love about them. More to hate, so I’ll tell you like I told the last one. If you can’t take it, you better leave now.”

Reney’s mom kissed her head and sniffed. Reney considered her life back home: her Granny, growing older Reney knew, by the day. Her mom’s double shifts. The second job at the track bar. The first husband, then the shared houses. The parade of boyfriends with big buckles and talk who promised microscopes and telescopes and puppies and all manner of things a stringy-haired mixed-blood girl might dream of. Pitch had a mad streak for sure. You had to work hard to find it, though. Reney figured the walls or bookshelves could take it. She’d seen worse.

“Leave if you want,” Reney said. “I’m staying.” Then she ran up the stairs and into the storm.

*

The rain was just an idea now. Overhead, she could hear big boughs sway and settle, hear the tiny limbs click. The thunder didn’t feel like it was exploding from her skull outwards. She pulled her T-shirt over her head and ran to the driveway where she watched Pitch’s taillights bounce over the cattleguard and float into the sky.

She jumped when her mom took her hand and kissed her palm. Her mom held tight, though, laced their fingers.

“I’m so sorry, honey.”

The taillights disappeared at the highway turn. They watched the white glow of headlights push through the night on an even plane toward town. Dan George came trotting up, shivering and soaked.

“We was going to be a family.” Reney pulled her hand away so Dan George could lick it.

“Me and Pitch just got some things to work out. You deserve better.”

“You don’t understand him at all. I wish you’d quit making him run off.”

“Reney, life don’t run on trinkets and giggles. I’ve worked two jobs since I was sixteen to make sure you wasn’t raggedy. I wanted us to stay in Oklahoma. I had a good job. You was in school. We had Lula and Granny.” Her voice trailed as she looked over at the trailer house. The porch light was flickering with a short she’d been after Pitch to fix. “He couldn’t bear to part with the Red River.”

“Everything wasn’t great there either, so don’t act like it was,” Reney said. She kissed for Dan George and was halfway up the trailerhouse steps and through the door before she heard her mom call her name.

Reney spread a towel on her quilt and patted for Dan George to join her. She wrapped herself around him and rested her forehead on his. The bookshelf was bothering Reney. It made her think of the swollen mess the first husband had made of her mom’s face. She remembered the terrible weeping, how her mom had hardened when Reney walked in, then smiled and said it would all be okay. She’d hastily put on too much makeup, then put all of his clothes in the hallway of their apartment building and changed the locks for good. Reney had wanted to let him in when he came weeping at the door, though she couldn’t remember, now, why.

Reney heard the door close. When her mom sat on the edge of the bed, Reney squeezed her eyes shut. She wanted to sit up and let her mom hug her and tell her how she was the most important thing in the world in her way of looking deep into Reney so that Reney knew it was true no matter what had happened to the contrary. As her mom smoothed her hair, Reney’s heart began to fill with love in the way it had of feeling like it might burst. She wanted to sit up and say You are my family, Mama. No matter where we are, you are my family. But then she thought of Pitch and the tornado and how he must have been scared. And how maybe her mom didn’t know the first thing about being scared because all she knew was love and mad and love and mad all over again. So Reney kicked her leg, feigned sleep, and rolled toward the wall.

Her mom shooed the dog. She outlined Reney’s bent legs with her own, pulled Reney into her, and clasped the top of Reney’s hand. Reney could hear from her mom’s breathing that she was crying. They lay like that, Reney thinking to herself, I’m going to turn over now, I’m going to turn over now and say sorry, I’m going to turn over now until her mom sniffed one last time in the way her mom could have of turning off sad, like it was a radio and you could just stop the sounds and all the feelings would go away.

“I know you can hear me, and I know you love me,” her mom said. “It’s okay that you aren’t going to talk right now. Mama’s got to go to town, baby. I’ll make it all right. You wake up scared, you go get Nina. You can go on over there now if you want. Mama and Pitch will both be back soon. We’ll be okay. Don’t let that dog back up here. He has fleas, and he stinks.”

Her mom got up and moved to the door. Reney could feel her, knew she didn’t leave.

“I know you love Pitch, Reney. I guess I love Pitch, too. He’s just Pitch, is all. But I love you more than anything in the whole wide world.”

They couldn’t know it, but the storm had only meandered that night. Even as her Mom’s truck roared to life, powered by the grace of dead dinosaurs and desperate love, the system was wrapping back around itself where it would settle on top of the old farmhouse and trailer. There it would stay, intent on letting out all of its howling fight on the five-acre stickerpatch sucked dry of oil, useless for growing anything but the horses a certain breed of man’s dreams are made of. Heartbreakers. All Reney knew as she lay there listening to her Mom’s truck rattle over the cattleguard was that, outside, the horses were sleeping upright and anywhere they could be heard, her mom’s words were true.

***

Kelli Jo Ford has work published or forthcoming in Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, New Delta Review, and Drunken Boat, among other places. She’s a recent Dobie Paisano fellow and holds an MFA from George Mason University. A member of the Cherokee Nation, she lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband, Scott; daughter, Cypress; and dog, Sylvia Plath Weaver-Ford. You can find her online at http://kellijoford.blogspot.com/

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