The following excerpt is from the book Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore. Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Wetmore. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
SUNDAY MORNING, FEBRUARY 15
It will be cold comfort, knowing she is not alone. Plenty of other women have gone before her. By the time she pulls into the fire lane at Sam Houston Elementary, two suitcases and a shoebox of family pictures hidden in the trunk, Ginny Pierce knows plenty of stories about those other women, the ones who ran off. But Ginny is not the running-off kind. She will be back in a year, two at the most. As soon as she has a job, an apartment, a little money in the bank—she is coming back for her daughter.
Mama, why are you crying? Debra Ann asks, and Ginny tells her, It’s just my allergies, honey, and D. A. shakes her head in the same manner she does everything, fiercely—It’s February, too early for allergies—as if that settles it. And Ginny swallows the stone in her throat. Could you scoot over here for a minute, honey? Let me see your face?
Her daughter is nearly ten. She is going to remember this day—the two of them sitting together in the front seat of the getaway car, a shaky and capricious Pontiac Ginny has been driving since high school. D. A. will remember her mother reaching out suddenly and pulling her across the front seat until they are sitting with their shoulders pressed together.
Ginny will remember pushing her daughter’s fine brown hair out of her eyes, the smell of oatmeal and Ivory soap, the chocolate on her chin from the Valentine’s candy she’s been eating all morning, and the shine on her cheeks from the suntan lotion Ginny swiped across her face before they left the house. When she reaches for her daughter to rub in a smudge of lotion on her chin, Ginny’s hand trembles and she thinks, Take her. Make it work somehow. But Debra Ann scoots away, saying, Quit it! Because to her, this is still like any other Sun- day morning and her mother might be nagging her about any of the usual things. To her, even Ginny’s tears have become old hat.
The car door, when it slams closed, nearly catches Ginny’s finger. A backpack slung over one shoulder, D. A.’s basketball striking the concrete and rolling onto the dusty playground, a hand thrown casually in the air, her daughter walking away from the car. Bye, Mama. Bye, Debra Ann.
Ginny’s grandma never much cared to talk about the women who made it out alive, but the stories about the ones who died trying? They are bright and enduring, as if somebody took a branding iron and seared them into Ginny’s memory.
In the spring of 1935 a cattleman’s wife served lunch to a dozen ranch hands and then hanged herself on the front porch. She didn’t even wash the dishes, Grandma said, just set them in the sink, took off her apron, and walked upstairs to change into her favorite shirtwaister. As if that were the story, the sink full of dishes. Later that afternoon a cowherd came up to the house to fill a water barrel and found her—a kitchen chair knocked over on the front porch, the wind slowly turning her round and round, back and forth, one bare foot peeking from beneath her skirt. It took them two days to find that missing shoe, her grandma said, and Ginny imagined a brown leather slipper, kicked far out into the yard and covered over with sand.
Another woman left a note saying that she had to see something green, anything at all, a dogwood, a magnolia, a little St. Augustine grass. She saddled up her husband’s best mare and dug in her heels, and they were flying fast across the desert when they ran into a barbed-wire fence just this side of Midland. It’s easy to get turned around out there, Grandma said, if you don’t know where you’re going.
Even those women who toed the line couldn’t escape Grandma’s stories. They got lost in sleet storms on their way home from church. They ran out of food and firewood in the middle of a blizzard. They buried babies that had been picked up and flung against the earth by a twister, and children who wandered into the yard during a dust storm and suffocated on the dirt from their own front yards. Sometimes Ginny thought her grandma didn’t know how to tell a story with a happy ending.
On the other side of Ginny’s windshield, the I-20 lies stretched out like a dead body. Up above, the sky is bland and unblinking. Nothing out here but that open road she’s been dreaming about, though at the moment she can barely see it. She turns on the junior college radio station, and Joni Mitchell’s voice fills the car, achingly beautiful, clear and certain as a church bell, or a plainsong, and it is unbearable. Ginny cannot turn it off fast enough. Now there is only the persistent thrum of road noise, and a worrisome little screak under the hood. When she presses down on the accelerator and the noise grows louder, she holds her breath and crosses her fingers.
At the turnoff to Mary Rose Whitehead’s house, Ginny switches on the blinker, takes her foot off the gas, and considers the turn. She imagines herself driving up the dirt road and knocking on the door of the woman she once stood outside the high school with, both of them waiting, Mary Rose for her mother and Ginny for her grandma, to pick them up and take them home for good.
The final bell had not yet rung, and they stood alone in the parking lot, their purses stuffed with gym suits and the con- tents of their school lockers, both of their noses red and sore from crying in the nurse’s office. Mary Rose was turning a small metal padlock over and over in her hand. She was seven- teen years old and as of thirty minutes ago, pregnant enough that somebody took notice. I thought my life was taking for- ever to get started, Mary Rose said, but not now. Do you know what I mean? Ginny, barely past her fifteenth birthday, shook her head and stared at the ground. She tried to imagine what her grandmother was going to say about this, Ginny making the same mistake as the daughter she had lost to a car accident a decade earlier.
Mary Rose leaned down and scratched her ankle. She stood back up, reared back, and hurled the lock against the side of a pickup truck. The girls watched it bounce off the door without leaving a mark. Well, Mary Rose said, I guess we’re in it now.
Yes we were, Ginny thinks, and she pushes the accelerator to the floor.
Still, when all the shouting and tears and threats were done, the baby was perfect. Ginny and Jim Pierce could hardly believe it. Look what they did. They made a person. A daughter! So they dug their King James out of a moving box and hunted up a fine, strong name. Deborah, Awake, awake, utter a song! But the county clerk spelled it Debra and they didn’t have the three bucks to resubmit the paperwork, so Debra it is—and Jim went to work in the oil patch while Ginny played house.
Afternoons while her daughter napped, Ginny liked to sit quietly and look at magazines with photographs of places she had never even heard of. She thumbed through art books that she found at the bookmobile, filled with photographs of murals and paintings and sculptures. She turned the pages slowly, marveling that somebody thought to make these things in the first place, wondering if the artists ever imagined some- one like her looking at their work. Ginny loves her daughter, but she feels like she’s sitting in the bottom of a rain barrel, and there’s a steady drizzle filling it up.
And it is for this reason—more than the men on the street who holler every time she steps out of her car to gas up, or the unceasing wind and relentless stench of natural gas and crude oil, even more than the loneliness that is briefly staved off, sometimes, when Jim comes home from work, or Debra Ann climbs into her lap even though she is too big to stay for more than a minute—that Ginny takes five hundred dollars from their joint account and one of the road atlases from the family bookcase, and drives out of West Texas as if her life depends upon it.
There was a man who ran a cow-calf operation on the same piece of land where he lived with his wife and three children. During the 1934 drought, the price of cattle fell to twelve dollars a head, not even worth the cost of moving them to the stockyards in Fort Worth. They shot them in the forehead, Grandma said, sometimes the government men who came to make sure the ranchers had thinned their herds out, but more often, the ranchers themselves, who didn’t feel it was right to ask a stranger to do their dirty work. The men stood over the bodies with kerosene-soaked rags in their hands, pausing awkwardly, as if everything might change if only they waited a few more minutes, days, weeks. Sighing, they lit the rags and then stood back and shook their heads. But there was always one old bull that wouldn’t die, who bawled and staggered as shot after shot struck his tough old skin, his flank, his heart girth. There was always one old cow everybody thought was dead, but then she rose up and wandered off across the field, smoke rising from her flanks, the stench of singed hair drifting behind her. All this, Grandma said, and the wind blew all day, every day.
Some men down from Austin arrived one morning to find a pile of cattle still smoldering in an open field. The rancher was dead in the barn. His wife lay a few feet away, fingers still curled around the pistol, and the front door of the main house was standing wide open, the wind slamming it madly against the frame. The men found the children locked in an upstairs bedroom, where the oldest, a boy of seven, handed the men an envelope with train fare and a scrap of catalog paper. A brief note was scribbled underneath the name and address of a sister in Ohio: I love my children. Please send them home.
Ginny’s grandma was a toothy old woman, a believer in hellfire and hard work and punishment that fit the crime. If the devil comes knocking on your front door in the middle of the night, she liked to say, chances are you flirted with him at the dance. When she delivered the punch line, she clapped her hands twice sharply, just to make sure Ginny was paying attention.
I’m not going, the oldest boy told the cowhands. I’m staying right here in Texas. Well, all righty, one of the men said. You can come home with me, then.
So there’s your happy ending, Virginia
She is less than thirty miles from Odessa when the whine under the hood of her car sharpens and grows louder, a steady keen that does not abate even when she slows to fifty, then forty-five, then forty. Eighteen-wheelers blow their horns and pass on the right, the wind shaking her car and nudging it toward the median. And then the sound stops. The car shudders once, as if shaking off its troubles, and she drives on, fifty, fifty-five, sixty miles per hour.
The sun stares down on her, flat-faced and bland. By now, Debra Ann has probably beaten every girl in the neighbor- hood at basketball. Or she is sitting on the bleachers, looking through her backpack for the sandwich that Ginny packed. Or she is walking home, the basketball a steady heartbeat against the sidewalk. D. A. is going to be fine for a couple of years. She is the best part of each parent—the boy who was a second-string quarterback and the girl who loved Joni Mitchell, two kids who hardly knew each other when they drank too much Jack Daniel’s at the homecoming dance and took a drive through the oil patch during the worst sleet storm of 1966, a story as common as dust on a windowpane.
What kind of woman runs out on her husband and her daughter? The kind who understands that the man who shares her bed is, and will always be, just the boy who got her pregnant. The kind who can’t stand thinking that she might someday tell her own daughter: All this ought to be good enough for you. The kind who believes she is coming back, just as soon as she finds someplace where she can settle down.
Come to think of it, country and western singers, those purveyors of sad songs and murder ballads where a good woman gone bad gets her just desserts? They’ve got nothing on Grandma—or Ginny, as it turns out.
It was 1958, and Ginny’s parents had been dead for less than a year. The boom had finally begun to level off, and there were fewer strange men around town, fewer roughnecks and roustabouts driving in to spend their paychecks and raise hell, but Ginny was still young enough to hold her grandma’s hand for no particular reason, just because. The two of them were making their way to the drugstore, cutting across the lawn at City Hall on their weekly sojourn to pick up her granddaddy’s pills and maybe a licorice whip for Ginny. It was early summer and the wind held still for a few minutes, here and there, the sun bestowing just the right amount of warmth on their faces when they stopped to watch the light shine through the diaphanous, narrow leaves of the town’s pecan trees. Until they nearly tripped over her, they did not see the woman curled up in the grass, sleeping like an old copperhead.
Ginny remembers it like this: She had sniffed at the air, recognizing the scent of piss and whiskey. She stared at the lady’s naked feet. Bright red polish flaked off her toenails, and her skirt hem rested above two skinned knees. Her bony clavicle rose and fell, and a thin scar on her neck reminded Ginny of the state map hanging on the wall in her first-grade classroom. Something about that long mark made Ginny want to wake her up and tell her, Lady, you got a scar in the shape of the Sabine River on your neck. It’s wonderful. But Ginny’s grandma squeezed her hand tight and jerked her away from the woman, her lips rucked up and pressed tightly together. Well, she said, that one’s been rode hard and put up wet one too many times.
For days, Ginny worked hard to figure out the meaning of those words. Sometimes she liked to imagine the lady saddled and thirsty, her skirt wrinkling beneath a wool blanket, a bit clenched in her teeth, and sweat streaming between her eyes as some old rancher rode her across the oil patch. Other times, Ginny thought about the way the woman had lain curled beneath the pecan tree, her toenails painted the exact red of the little wagon that Ginny hauled around the yard. The quickness with which her grandma had jerked her away from the woman was not so different from the way she yanked Ginny out of her granddaddy’s barn when a bull started climbing up on one of the cows.
And if Grandma’s hands hadn’t been so full, if she hadn’t had it up to here most days, with Ginny and dust and scrubbing the crude oil out of her husband’s shirts, Ginny might have asked her why she said that. But she stayed quiet about it, and she sometimes thought about those two skinned knees, the scar that looked like the Sabine River, its meandering path across the woman’s throat as she slept in the shade of a pecan tree. The woman had been beautiful to Ginny. She still is.
A few miles past the Slaughter Field, the derricks and pumpjacks give way to empty desert. On the other side of Pecos, the road begins to rise and fall. The horizon goes jagged, and the land turns ruddy and uneven. How lonely it is out there. How lovely.
Ginny keeps both hands on the wheel, her eyes shifting back and forth between the temperature gauge and the road ahead. She stops for gas in Van Horn, sitting in her car with her fingers wrapped around the steering wheel while the attendant fills the tank and washes the windows. Cigarette dangling from his lips, he checks the tire pressure and asks if she needs anything more. His coveralls are the same gray as Debra Ann’s eyes, and there is a small oval Gulf Oil patch on his breast pocket. No thank you, she says and hands him five dollars.
He points to her back seat. You forgot to return your library book before you left town. Ginny twists around to see Art in America surrounded by candy bar wrappers and one of Debra Ann’s graded spelling tests, the first two words canceled and trespassing, both misspelled.
At the stockyards outside of El Paso, she rolls the window up tight, her eyes and skin burning when the stench of methane gas seeps through the vents. She is ten miles from the New Mexico border, the farthest she has ever been from home.
Beauty! Beauty is not for people like us, her grandma said when Ginny tried to explain why she liked to sit and look at pictures in the afternoons. You’d do better paying attention to what’s right in front of you, the old woman said. If you wanted to spend your life thinking about such things, you should have thought of that before—or been born someplace else. And maybe that’s true, but it seems like a high price to pay, and maybe Ginny’s not willing to make the trade—the world or her daughter—because it’s clear she can’t have both.
When the fan belt finally snaps on the other side of Las Cruces, Ginny’s car shudders to the highway shoulder. She gets out of the car and watches the moon rise over the desert like a broken carnelian, and such has been her fear and grief and longing that, for many years, she will not remember the man who pulled up behind her car, his truck wheels grinding against the caliche-covered highway shoulder. She will not remember the words on the side of his truck—Garza & O’Brien, Tow & Repair—or that he fetched his toolbox from his truck and replaced the belt on the spot while she leaned against the trunk and looked at the stars, and wept without making a sound. And she will not remember what he said, when Ginny tried to give him a few dollars. Young lady, I can’t take your money. Pues, good luck.
She will have seen a thousand miles of sky before she is finally able to stop moving. Flagstaff, Reno, one short and sorry stint in Albuquerque that she tries hard to forget. Weeks and months sleeping in her car after a day spent cleaning houses, or a night waiting tables. She will drive through the Sonoran Desert, its washes and ravines disappearing into box canyons, she will sit at the edge of a meadow just above the Mogollon Rim, newly covered with snow. The road that leads away is full of switchbacks so tight Ginny has to stop and back up, and hope that no one comes around the corner before she can make the curve.
There will be a bar in Reno, where the same old lady shows up every night at nine o’clock and stays until close, her lips creased with lipstick, fingernails the color of blood, her smile as fierce and hard and true as the face Ginny sees in the mirror, most mornings. All of this is beautiful to her—the sky and sea, addicts and old ladies, musicians playing in subway stations, museums at the end of the line. She will see bridges over- come by fog, and sylvan forests teeming and dark and full of hidden water. Every place has a different kind of sky, it turns out, and much of this earth is not nearly as brown and flat as Odessa, Texas. All this wild, green beauty and still, always, a hole in her heart the size of a little girl’s fist. Ginny will drive that Pontiac into the ground and grieve for it when it’s gone. Never, she thinks, will I love a man the way I loved that car. And when people she meets along the way wonder about her, when they try to know her—some of them will love her, and she will love some of them, but never as much as the daughter who grows taller every day, without her—when they ask what’s your story or where are you from, Ginny never knows quite what to say. Each time, she just packs up her car and drives away.
Elizabeth Wetmore is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in Epoch, Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Iowa Review, and other literary journals. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, as well as a grant from the Barbara Deming Foundation. She was also a Rona Jaffe Scholar in Fiction at Bread Loaf and a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, and one of six Writers in Residence at Hedgebrook. A native of West Texas, she lives and works in Chicago. Valentine is her first novel.
Music by Catlofe