A native of West Texas, Elizabeth Wetmore is writing a novel set in the oil patch and a collection of short stories set in Phoenix, Arizona. Both projects have been nurtured and sustained by the love and faith of her friends and family as well as generous grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council. She lives in Chicago with the poet Jorge Sánchez and their son Hank, who is currently reading (and loving!) his first book by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Women & Horses
It will be cold comfort to know, Gay Lynn Pierce, even before you drop your daughter off at school and drive yourself away from your hometown, if not forever then pretty close to it, that you are not alone. Plenty of other women have gone before you. Plenty of them couldn’t stand the place either. By the time you find yourself parked in the fire lane at Sam Houston Elementary School, two suitcases and a shoebox of family pictures hidden in the trunk, you will know plenty of stories about those other women, the ones who ran off.
Your daughter says, Mama, why are you crying? And you tell her, I’m not, Debra Ann, it’s just allergies, and she says, It’s February, too soon for allergies. And you swallow the stone in your throat. Could you scoot over here for a minute, Honey? Let me see your face?
Your daughter is eight years old. She is going to remember this—the two of you sitting together in the front seat of the getaway car, a shaky and capricious Pontiac you have driven since high school, you clasping her to your shoulder, smoothing her fine brown hair. You will remember the way she smelled—the morning’s oatmeal and Ivory soap, the face cream you allowed her to swipe across her face after she brushed her teeth. When you reach again for your daughter, to rub at a little spot of lotion lingering on her jaw, your thumb trembles and you think take her. But she squirms away from you, saying Quit it! Because, to her, this might still be like any other school morning and you might be nagging her about any of the usual things. To her, even your tears have become old hat.
The car door, when it slams closed, nearly catches your finger. A backpack is slung over one thin shoulder, a hand thrown casually in the air, your daughter moving away from you. Bye, Mama. Bye.
Up above, the sky is bland, pale blue, and unblinking. In front of you, the Interstate 20 stretches out like a dead body. Nothing out here but that open road you’ve been hoping for, although, at the moment, you can barely see it. Mile by mile, you are becoming one of those women you’ve spent your whole life hearing about, one of those who ran off. You are still close enough to town for the junior college radio station to come in. Turn it on and listen as Joni Mitchell’s tender, plain voice fills the car. The song is clear and true. It is a church bell, a plainsong. It is achingly beautiful. For God’s sake, hurry up and turn it off. And it occurs to you that nobody ever talks about the ones who made it out alive. But the stories about the women who died trying? These are seared into your memory, like somebody put them there with a branding iron.
Here’s one: When you were eight years old, the same age your daughter is now, the woman who lived on the ranch adjacent to your family’s hanged herself. She cooked lunch for twenty men and boys, ranch hands, and then, leaving all the dirty dishes on the table—local women talked about this for years, that she didn’t even do up the dishes first—she went upstairs and put on her favorite shirtwaister. Around 4:00, a cowherd came up to the house to fill up the water barrel and found her on the back porch, kitchen chair knocked over, a small wind slowly turning her round and round, one bare foot. It took them two days to find her missing shoe, a small brown house slipper that had been kicked far out into the yard and covered over with blowing sand.
And then there was your great-grandmother’s dear friend—her name escapes you, but she killed both herself and her husband’s best horse when she ran into a barbed wire fence just this side of Midland. She left a note that said she was hoping to see spring happen somewhere green, and she pointed that poor animal in what she thought might be the general direction of Knoxville, Tennessee, and she dug in her heels. It’s easy to get turned around out here.
Then there are stories about the women who were lost in sleet storms—who ran out of food or water or firewood; who buried too many infants and lost themselves in grief that was as fixed and solid as a winter sky. Stung to death, bit to death, beat to death. Picked up and flung against the earth by twisters. Lost in sandstorms so fierce that people choked to death on the dirt from their own front yards.
Here is a story that anybody who has been in the area for more than one generation knows, maybe because it still has a woman’s name attached to it. Anne Purvis. She was the wife of a man who ran a cow-calf operation out of Seminole during the great drought of 1934. The price of cattle fell to twelve dollars a head, and it wasn’t even worth it to put them on the train to El Paso or Fort Worth. Entire herds had to be put down, sometimes in a single afternoon. The animals were shot in the forehead, most often by the ranchers themselves, who didn’t feel it was right to ask their cowhands to do it. Cows will stand together, and they will fall together in a pile too. The ranchers stood over the bodies with kerosene-soaked rags in their hands. They paused awkwardly, as if everything might change, if only they gave it a few more seconds. Then, sighing, they lit the rags and tossed them toward the bodies. They stood back and shook their heads.
And you know there was always that one old bull who just wouldn’t die, who bawled in the most awful way and staggered around while shot after shot filled its forehead, its heart girth. There was always that one old cow you thought was dead, but then she rose up after she’d been set on fire and wandered off across a field, smoke rising from her flanks. All this, and the wind blew all day, every day.
Anne Purvis shot her husband first. When the men arrived the next morning, they found a pile of cattle still smoldering in an open field and the front door of the main house standing open, the wind slamming it madly against the frame. They found the three Purvis children locked in an upstairs bedroom where the oldest, a boy of seven, steadfastly handed the horrified men an envelope containing train fare, a slip of paper bearing the name and address of a sister in Ohio, and a brief note scribbled on a scrap of catalog paper: I love my children. Please take them
back to home.
I’m not going, her oldest boy told the cowhands. I’m staying right here in Texas. This is my home now.
Texas is hell on horses & women. You can’t remember when you first heard this tired old chestnut, but because it can take the better part of a day to get out of West Texas (more if the sand starts blowing) you will have plenty of time to search your memories. Without the radio there is only the persistent thrum of road noise and a worrisome little screak coming from under the hood. Hold your breath, Gay Lynn Pierce. Keep your fingers crossed. Let your tires trundle steadily forward. Let your memory roll itself back.
You were six years old, the morning you walked into town with your mother. It was 1957 and the oil boom had finally begun to level off. There were fewer strangers around, fewer roughnecks and roustabouts coming into town to spend their paychecks and raise hell, but you were still young enough to sometimes want to hold your mama’s hand. When the two of you went to town, you held on for dear life. On this day, you made your way to the drugstore, a weekly sojourn to pick up your mother’s pills and maybe a licorice whip for you, if you had been good.
The two of you always cut across the lawn at City Hall and today was no different. It was a perfect, early summer day, the kind of day when the wind held still for a few minutes, here and there, and the sun bestowed upon your head just the right amount of warmth. You and your mother stopped to watch the light shine through the diaphanous, narrow leaves of the town’s pecan trees. Eighty years ago the city mothers had worked hard to keep these trees alive, pouring their hearts and souls into them, watching the weaker ones die by the dozens, but now the trees were grown to 35 feet or more, their thin leaves fine and backlit by the sun.
Until you nearly tripped over her, you did not see the figure curled up in the grass, sleeping like an old copperhead. Your mother squeezed your hand tight and allowed you to look for a few seconds. You sniffed at the odor of piss and stared at the lady’s naked feet, bright red polish flaking off her toenails, skirt hem resting above two skinned knees. Her bony clavicle rose and fell, and a thin scar on her neck reminded you of the state map hanging on the wall in your first-grade classroom. Something about that long mark made you want to giggle, to wake her up and tell her, Lady, you got a scar in the shape of the Sabine river on your neck.
But your mother had had enough. She jerked you away, her lips rucked up as she sighed, Well, that one’s been rode hard and put up wet one time too many.
For years, you worked hard to figure out the meaning of your mother’s words. Sometimes you 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. Sometimes you thought about the way she had lain curled beneath the pecan tree, her toenails painted the exact red of the little wagon you hauled around the yard, and you thought there must have been something wicked about her, something you could not quite understand, not just yet. The way your mother had jerked you away from the woman was not so different from how she pulled you out of your grandfather’s barn when a bull began to heft himself up on one of the cows. And if your mama’s hands weren’t so full, if she hadn’t had it up to here most days, with little children and dust and scrubbing at the crude oil in your daddy’s shirts (the very definition of futility, she called that scrubbing) then you might have asked her to clear some things up for you. The woman was never out of your thoughts for more than a month or so—two skinned knees, the Sabine meandering across her throat, and your mother’s words. They stuck with you.
Six years later, you attended a livestock auction with your grandfather. You watched carefully as he examined a plump and pretty horse. She was brown as mesquite bark, sturdy and pretty, as quarter horses are wont to be, and she stood peaceably in her stall while the old man touched her haunches, peered into her mouth, and briefly lifted her tail. You read aloud to him the information on the index card tacked to the gate. Quarter Horse. Six year-old mare. Bay. Fourteen hands. Daphne.
The old man turned to you, twelve years old but trying hard to be older, and he asked your opinion. What do you think about this little gal, Gay Lynn Smith?
Now, driving away, the only sky you have ever known peering flat-faced and bland at you through the windshield, you remember for the first time in years that your name wasn’t always Pierce. There was a time when you were somebody else, somebody with a different name, and you decide on the spot to start calling yourself that name again. Smith. You think maybe you will be able to bring something back, being called by your old name.
You remember also that by the time he asked for your opinion you already loved the little horse, and you were hoping wildly that your granddaddy would make a bid for her. Still, you narrowed your eyes and pretended to examine her for a few seconds. You squatted on the ground and peered up at her belly before you spoke. She looks pretty good to me. A real good little horse.
Your grandfather spit a plug of snuff and it hit the ground right next to Daphne’s front hoof. Nah, he said, we don’t want this one, Miss Gay Lynn Smith. Nobody loved this horse enough to take care of her. This little gal’s been rode hard and put up wet one time too many.
Your head snapped up like a provoked turtle. What do you mean by that, PawPaw?
What? The old man looked confused. Mean by what?
You told him about the lady sleeping in the grass, careful to describe everything as you remembered it, right up to the moment when your mother rucked up her lips and jerked you away. You told him what she had said.
Kathleen told you that?
Well, how come she said something like that? He spat on the ground again then smoothed his thumb against the little horse’s forehead. Well. Hmm. He cleared his throat and brushed a tangled forelock out of Daphne’s eye. I wish your mama wouldn’t of said that to you. I don’t think that’s a right thing to tell a little girl, even if I said it too. But I guess she had her reasons. He was quiet for a few seconds. Okay, here.
Your grandfather smoothed his hands over the animal’s rump while he talked about how she had started out as a fine little horse. She had good conformation, just the right amount of distance from withers to croup, a good slope of shoulder, and no signs she might be coon-footed or monkey-mouthed. But, he explained, she had also been unlucky enough to find herself in a home where the human animals didn’t bother to cool her down properly after a hard run, where nobody kept an eye on her water intake. A hot and thirsty horse, he reminded you, can tie her intestines into knots if nobody keeps an eye on how quickly she drinks her water. He showed you the scars on Daphne’s topline, then several more on her rump and shoulders. Neither did these humans bother to brush her out after a ride, he explained. He pointed out her overgrown teeth, the colorless gums, and he pinched a bit of skin above her withers, showing you the mass of fat he held between his fingers.
Look right here, he said and pointed to her hooves. This little girl’s not been to a farrier for at least six months. She’s going to founder any minute now, Gay Lynn.
You wanted to shout at him, That’s all right! I don’t want her no more! Let’s talk about something different now, but what you said was this: That’s a damned shame.
He rested his hand lightly on Daphne’s breast for a few seconds then knelt and leaned his head against her side while he looked hard at his wristwatch.
Wind-broken, he said sadly.
Then your grandfather said the strangest thing you had ever heard. ‘Poor jades lob down their heads, dropping the hides and hips, the gum down-roping from their pale-dead eyes, and in their pale dull mouths the gimmel-bit lies foul with chew’d grass, still and motionless…’
You said, What’s that, PawPaw? What’s that mean?
Then you asked him the question you had been holding onto for years. How’s that like a woman?
Your granddaddy laughed, a short sudden bark that caused the people standing one stall over to glance across at the two of you and, suddenly, his body was full of movement. He scratched at a sore on his arm, yanked at his jaw, pulled a handkerchief out of his blue jeans and hawked something into it. He plucked a can of snuff from his pocket, tucking a fresh plug between his lip and gum. Then he stood next to Daphne and gently patted her ribcage. Oh, little Daphne, he murmured. You hearing all this? Ain’t this something. Well, Texas is hell on horses & women, they say, and little girls too, sometimes, I guess.
Finally, he turned his attention to you. Gay Lynn, here’s how a horse is like a woman. You got to look after them. You got to love them and take care of them. Otherwise, they’re no good to anybody— themselves, least of all.
You nodded. Can’t they take care of their own selves?
Your grandfather bent down and looked you square in the eye. Honey, if we buy this horse we’re buying two or three years of throwing good money after naught and breaking our own hearts every day while we try to keep her alive. He patted the little horse lightly on the rump. Sorry, young lady. Sorry for the trouble you’ve had, but it’s not going to be our trouble too.
He stood then and clawed around in his shirt pocket until he came up with a nub of pencil. He walked over to the owner’s card and drew a line through the horse’s name. Beneath it, he wrote a different name. Laurel. Next, he came and stared down at you for a few seconds. Again he bent, and this time he pulled you to him tight, tight enough for you to smell his snuff, feel the grizzle on his jaw. You already knew the horse wasn’t coming home with you. That was all right—you were a big girl and you understood how these things worked—but still, you cried. You stood there hugging your grandfather and bawling while you watched the horse and she watched you back, the dimness in her brown eyes a pitiful evidence.
You will be driving past the stockyards outside of El Paso, your windows solidly closed and your eyes burning from the God-awful stench of methane gas and cow shit, before you allow yourself to think about your husband. You are less than ten miles from the New Mexico border and even though you are nearly twenty-five years old, this is the farthest you have ever been from home.
Your granddaddy would have liked James Pierce, Jr., in spite of the way you two started out. Jimmy loved you well enough to marry you when plenty of other local boys would have run off to Lubbock, or Vietnam. Your husband doesn’t drink too much, doesn’t run around on you, and he doesn’t hit you. Under the circumstances, your mother says, that ought to be enough for you.
Mornings, in the early days of your marriage, your groom would look up from a bowl of cereal, his hazel eyes casting about the table, lingering briefly on Debra Ann as she sat plump and pink-cheeked in her high chair. Those mornings you wore your first Mother’s Day present, a rich blue robe that you snugged across your belly. Your eyes would meet across the table—both of you were worn to the bone that first year after your daughter was born—and you could tell from the way he looked at both of you that James Pierce, Jr., couldn’t believe his good fortune. How lucky he was to have this beautiful baby, and you! And so what if it all happened about five years too soon? So what?
Say there are two kids. The boy is a second-string quarterback with a fine heart, and the girl is an honors student who loves Joni Mitchell and wonders what the sky looks like someplace else. Say they drink too much Jack Daniels at the homecoming dance and take a drive, ending up somewhere in the oil patch during the worst sleet storm of 1966. And in the back seat of the girl’s Pontiac—the boy’s people are dirt poor and he can’t afford his own car—somehow, in the midst of all the fumbling and breathing and giggling, they manage to get the girl knocked up. That old story—it’s as common as dust on the windowpanes. Say the girl’s mother tells her, You made your bed, Gay Lynn Smith–
And after all the hassle and tears and blame, let’s say the baby is perfect and fine. The girl and the boy can hardly believe it. Look what they did. They made a person. A daughter! So they dig their King James out of a moving box and hunt up a fine, strong name, Deborah, Awake, awake, utter a song!—but the county clerk spells it Debra and they don’t have the extra three dollars to redo the paperwork, so Debra it is—and the boy goes back to work and the girl begins almost immediately to pin all her new hopes and dreams on this child.
And knowing all this, Gay Lynn Pierce, you cannot understand how it is that you have come to feel, these past nine years, as if you are living in the bottom of a rain barrel and there’s a steady drizzle, slowly filling it up.
Then the day will come when it occurs to you that you have spent more than half your life wanting to run away, from one thing or another, without ever really understanding why this is so, and it will be for this reason more than anything else (more than the unceasing wind or the constant, soul-wringing stench of crude oil and natural gas, or the loneliness you have never quite been able to name) that you will take five hundred dollars and the car you have had since high school and you will drive out of West Texas as if your life depends upon it.
What kind of woman runs out on her husband and young daughter?
The kind of woman who can’t stand thinking she might someday tell her own daughter: All this ought to be good enough for you. The kind who figures she might do more harm than good if she stays.
And how is a horse like a woman? How is a woman like a horse? Sometimes you get a hold of one you can’t break, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes you get one that won’t stop taking off across the fields.
So you tell yourself you’re not broken and you keep on driving.
You will spend the next fifteen years driving from one place to another (Tucson, Flagstaff, Reno, San Francisco, one short sorry stint in Memphis). You will earn your keep waiting tables or cleaning houses, doing what you have to do. You will drive that Pontiac into the ground and you will see: the sea and sea lions, musicians on Beale Street given over to their work, bridges lost in fog, sylvan forests teeming and dark and full of hidden water. You will drive through canyons so deep and switchbacks so sharp that sometimes you will have to pull over and breathe deep just to get up the nerve to finish the drive. Every place has a different kind of sky, it turns out, and most of the earth is not nearly as brown and flat as West Texas. You will spend those first years thinking, I had no idea. All this wild, green beauty—and still, always, there will be a hole in your heart the size of a little girl’s fist.
And when the people you meet along the way wonder about you, when they want to know who you are—some of them will be kind, more than a few of them will be men, some beloved, but none as beloved as the daughter who grows taller every day, without you—when those people you meet along the way ask What’s your story? or What are you running from? you never quite know what to say. Each time you just pack up your car and you drive away.
“ I was thinking about something I overheard once when I was visiting my hometown, and I don’t remember the details but it began with the words What kind of woman…and that was enough to get the ball rolling. Early on in the process, I also began to play around with that old chestnut Texas is hell on horses and women. The voice of this story was clear to me from the get-go, but I tried to fight against it. Second person is weird—ungainly and unwieldy. At some point, I tried writing a page or two in first person, then third, but they didn’t work. And I had to get it right because ‘Women & Horses’ is part of a much larger work; and it is the only time this character appears in the book. So I wanted, rather badly, to do justice to her story. I hope I have done so. ”