Whichever way the wind shifted that week brought in a different smell. You could close your eyes and imagine the Oklahoma prairie a distant campfire with nice little marshmallows roasting over it, but the oil patches burning out in West Texas smelled like a great big grease fire. It hadn’t rained since early September. With just one dusting of snow, the winter wheat was nothing but fields of dirt and a few brown stems. Cows was skinny and bored, crowded around salt blocks, and feed bills was sending everybody to the poorhouse. Great big limbs was breaking off the oaks on account of the wind. To top it off, it wasn’t even cold, and it was damn near February. Seemed God himself was turning North Texas into the Sahara right before our very eyes, and all we could do was sit back and watch, try not to blow away or burn up.
It was the fires from around Ft. Worth that was heartbreaking. The Red Cross had cots set up for the unlucky ones at the gymnasium over in Ponder. All I smelled in that smoke was mattresses and teddy bears. John Brown from Channel 7 called the entire region a “tinderbox,” said the grasses was like matchsticks. I called Bonita one stop short of Hell, but that’d been the case for years.
Other than the news on the television and the smell, it was business as usual, except I guess we was all a little on edge. On Friday me and my husband, Pitch, got into it before we left for Peterbilt, where we work the night shift.
We’d only been in bed a few hours when who but Pitch’s daddy comes ambling in bright and early, not knocking, dragging his spurs across the kitchen floor and spitting tobacco juice all down the side of the trashcan, like he does. Then he sticks his head in the bedroom and says, “Come on, Pitch, cock’s crowed. Need you to shoe the fat mare.”
I turn over to the wall. Of course, Pitch jumps up and jerks on some clothes and runs out the door, stepping over a pile of laundry, shoving his foot down in his boot. I sit up and yell, “Bathroom sink’s filling that coffee can faster than I can empty it out.” All I get in response is Pitch’s truck coughing and kicking in the driveway. I throw the covers off and run to the window and yell some more, but he’s already gone.
I’d been asking him to fix the sink for two weeks. It wasn’t like we had the money to call the plumber, so I finally gave up and spent the morning on my back with a monkey wrench, twisting and turning, trying to replace the p-trap. Took me the whole morning to do what he could’ve done in thirty minutes, and I couldn’t even get the new pipe back on right before I had to start getting ready for work. While I’m standing there at the sink putting on my makeup, here he comes banging in the door right before we have to go. He starts running water for a bath, on account of the shower was broke too. He smelled like hay and horse sweat, which ain’t a new smell by any means, but that day it made me just about want to puke.
“We better hurry,” he says and strips down, leaving his clothes in a wad like he does, his underwear and socks still stuffed down in his pants. I had the 7 News at Noon on for noise, and from the tub he says, “John Brown calling for rain?”
“Hundred percent under the goddamn sink,” I tell him.
“I’m sorry,” he says, slapping his forehead like this was the first time in the world this sink or a million other leaks all over the godforsaken house slipped his mind. “I shod the fat mare for Daddy, then we got to working on fence—”
“He pay you?” I say, knowing the answer already. Pitch cut his eyes at me and started scrubbing shampoo into his hair.
“He’s got plenty money to get his pants pressed and buy that two-hundred-dollar hat,” I start in. “You could’ve helped me pick up this mess this morning, you could’ve fixed the sink, or you could’ve at least shod for somebody who’d pay you, Pitch.” I wait a minute. “Or you could always sell that colt.”
He’d been offered five thousand for it already. It didn’t matter that I wrote the check for the feed bill every month—I didn’t have a say. Since I got him on at the plant, he expected the money to be rolling in. Every Thursday I still raced checks to the bank to keep us from being overdrawn. He didn’t count all those years of getting behind, when he was a roughneck or a jockey, not finding a new job when the rig moved or the horse come up lame.
“I guess I’m just a sorry son of a bitch for helping out my daddy,” he says. Then he gets to going. “Justine, I don’t drink, don’t run around on you, don’t hit you.”
“Some standards to set for yourself, Brother Barnes,” I tell him, like a thousand other times. But he lays under the water to rinse his head, so I go back to putting on my mascara.
And then I sneeze, which ain’t so very odd since I’m kind of allergic to the shampoo I’d bought. I grab a Q-Tip and turn on the water in the damn sink without even thinking about how there ain’t a pipe under there. Water starts gushing out, and all the while he’s making all kinds of noise, pouring water from a plastic pitcher over his head, blinking like crazy, like he can’t even hear me. I turn the water off fast as I can, but not before half the floor is soaked, including two pairs of his jeans and underwear. My only pair of steel-toe work shoes is soaked through. My pants are wet. In the mirror I see the black all around my eyes, and then I really get to yelling.
“You’re just like your goddamn daddy,” I say. “This house is fixing to fall down around me, just like your momma’s did. But you don’t have to worry about it. Your ass ain’t never here.”
He gets out of the tub, wraps a towel around himself and starts moving his jeans around in the water with his foot, like he’s doing a great big service, cleaning up my mess, sighing the whole time, peering around the corner, trying to see the clock because all the sudden time is real important.
I keep going. “I damn near had three nervous breakdowns trying to hold this house together with baling wire and duct tape and keep your underwear picked up. You leave your shit laying around. You come and go as you please. I ain’t your momma, and I ain’t about to end up like her. I don’t want to die in this mess and have sticks marking my grave when I go.”
I’ve said all this before. It always gets him because he knows how his momma died, all alone in that rickety farmhouse on the river, doing without. When his daddy got too old to train horses, he started sitting on his ass all day at the D.Q., bragging about all the runners from his glory days, showing off his trophy buckles to every traveler who stopped in for a bite. She was down in her back for damn near twenty years, waiting on him to come home and tell her about his day—who he saw, what they said, but mostly what he said. It was all I could do to take them a roast or some stew a couple times a week. Hell, Pitch’s daddy wanted applause when he brought in fish from the D.Q. once in a blue moon. Finally, her heart gave out and she died, all by herself in her little bedroom with a feed bucket sitting in the corner collecting water from the hole in the roof. To top it all off, his daddy ain’t even got her a proper tombstone yet. He said he couldn’t afford it. Pitch made a cross out of cedar and put it up there finally. It shamed the living hell out of me.
This time Pitch drops his towel in the water on the floor, stands there stark naked, looks me in the eye, and says, “I’m his boy; I reckon that’s who I am then.” He stomps out, throws some clothes on, jumps in his truck, and drives to work by himself.
Used to be, when I called Pitch his daddy, he denied it, or got real upset, and maybe we’d have a heart-to-heart, and he’d say he’d change his ways, because it hurt him to know how his momma died. But when he stared me right in the eye and said, “That’s who I am,” I knew then and there that things weren’t ever going to change. Don’t know why it took me sixteen years to figure that out, but it did.
We both worked in the paint department, but he taped down on one end of the line, and I pulled the trucks out of the oven on the other end. Our lunches was together, though, and that night when I saw him laughing and talking to the boys on the other side of the lunchroom, sneaking up to stick a tail he made out of masking tape to somebody’s backside, like nothing in the world could be the matter, I thought to myself, “That’s it. I’m done.” Driving home from work, looking at the fires glowing orange far-off to the west, I set my mind to leave. It could all burn for all I cared.
My daughter was halfway across the county in school, smarter than I ever was to set her sights on gone. Now was as good a time as any for me to do the same. My hair was going gray, and my face was starting to sag in ways Merle Norman couldn’t help. Talking about Reney or her grades was the only nice conversations me and Pitch ever had, and grades only come twice a year.
This wasn’t like when I was drinking, back when I’d declare religion and drag Reney kicking and screaming, hellbound to Mom’s in Oklahoma. It wasn’t like when I loaded up mad and hit it in a straight shot for my sisters in Virginia. I’d saved up a couple hundred dollars from garage sales, and I could stay temporary at Mom’s until I got on my feet. Do it right, really make a life for myself. I figured maybe I’d take some computer classes if I could cut it. Get a house with siding you don’t have to paint and an extra bedroom for the holidays, someplace Reney wouldn’t feel embarrassed to bring a friend home to. Someplace without all the yelling.
After work that night, Pitch turned on John Brown, and we went to bed without saying a word about what happened between us. I let that coffee can spill over and left the wet clothes laying in the bathroom floor. That night, for the first time in ages, I slept just fine. The next morning when I woke up, like always, Pitch was already gone. I set about packing.
I made neat stacks and labeled every single box. Things was going to be different back in Oklahoma. I’d stuffed my clothes in black garbage bags, had my knickknacks wrapped in paper and boxed, and I was trying to separate the cast iron his momma’d give me, God rest her soul, from what I had to steal from mine when she wasn’t looking. I was fretting over the little corncob cornbread molds. I couldn’t hardly see taking them, since his momma’d only passed a year or so before, but I couldn’t stand the thought of some hussy-come-lately making hot corncakes smothered in butter for Thanksgiving, putting the perfect little corncob in Pitch’s mouth, wiping the butter off his chin with her pinky.
I’d just about decided to pack the molds, since it was me she gave them to, when I smelled the fires. They came blowing in the west window strong all the sudden, too strong. I ran out the front door, still holding onto one of the corncobs. There I saw the biggest wall of smoke you ever did imagine coming from around Comanche Hill. The wind was blowing so hard my eyes was watering. All I could hear was the roar of the wind until the emergency siren went off, round and round, screaming.
Right about then, here comes Pitch’s beat-up truck sliding sideways into the driveway. He jumps out and leaves the truck door open like he does—always in a hurry to get going again once he shows up—and then he runs up on the porch yelling, “Coming this way fast, you got to leave, where’s my coveralls?” All in one breath, just like that, and he was gone into the house.
I’m standing there in the middle of the yard, dumbstruck. I’ll be the first to admit, I ain’t much of a housekeeper. Hell, I ain’t much of plumber either, but it don’t keep me from trying. But I knew there wasn’t any telling in God’s green earth where those things were. But here Pitch is running around yelling his fool head off about where I put his coveralls, because today he decides he better really volunteer to be a volunteer fireman instead of just putting the sticker on his truck and showing up on the fly for meetings to gab and drink Dr. Pepper. I come to my senses, spit the dust out of my mouth, and run into the house. When I get to the kitchen, all I see are shirts and pants flying from the bedroom door, a pair of underpants hanging on the kitchen chair.
“You seen my coveralls?” Pitch yells from the bedroom.
“Did you check the hamper?” I yell back, standing stock-still in the middle of the kitchen floor, still holding that corncob pan.
“Why would they be there?” Pitch says, huffing and puffing, holding his grandpa’s pocketknife and his daddy’s little .410. His race saddle is tucked under his arm, and he’s wearing his first jockey helmet, the one his momma stitched the number seven on by hand.
“Check the closet.”
“What’s all this?” he says, looking around at the boxes.
“It’s your momma’s cooking stuff,” I say and drop the corncob in an open box.
“Just take what you need.” He shakes his head and runs out to his truck with all his junk like a kid with his toys.
Then it hits me. Reney’s baby stuff. I run to her old room—which is just the way she left it except for the junk I’ve stacked in there—and start pulling stuff from under the bed, looking through Christmas decorations, witch hats, piles of clothes, and dusty suitcases for the baby pictures. I find a box of brand-new jeans I was intending to sell that I got for almost nothing when the Belt Company went under. I find two dog biscuits and a cat toy, a box of National Geographics from the thirties, and a wooden keychain with my name on it that Reney made when she quit home-ec for eighth-grade shop. I shove that in my back pocket and get lucky again and find a little baby food jar with two silver-capped baby teeth rattling in it and cram that in my front pocket. But I cannot find the pictures or the birth certificate.
Pitch runs by the door with three more guns tucked under his arms, a beat-up felt Stetson stuck on his head, and chaps hanging around his neck that he hadn’t been able to fit into since the year we met at the track in Sallisaw. I fling open the closet door. It’s stacked wall-to-wall, two deep all the way to the ceiling with boxes full of God knows what. I start pulling them down. Right off the bat I find a box of old photo albums—not what I want—but I throw them in the hall and yell at Pitch to put them in my truck when he runs by with the mounted deer head.
He’s grunting picking up the box. Outside the siren is blasting, and the shutters are banging against the side of the house. “Why are you taking so much shit?” he says. He doesn’t get it. He never gets it, and now’s not the time to hash it all out again.
“Why do you need so many guns?” I yell back, but he’s already gone. The siren usually only goes off for tornadoes, but the shutters are making so much racket that I wonder if there ain’t a damned tornado out there too, so I start yanking down boxes faster.
Pitch comes in Reney’s room. He’s loaded everything important and wanting his coveralls.
“I don’t know where your goddamn coveralls are,” I say.
He’s playing the saint, making a big show out of trying to be real patient, shoving his hands down in his pockets, breathing deep. “Do you know where my old ones are?”
I ask him where he put them. That always stumps him.
“There ain’t time for this, Justine,” he yells, throwing his arms up in the air, kicking a hole in a box of eight-tracks.
And he’s right. I start to cry, kneeling in front of the boxes full of everything and nothing at all.
“We need to go,” he says, “Now.”
“I can’t find her baby pictures. Her birth certificate, the baby book. I looked everywhere. I can’t find them.” I cover my mouth and look around at the tapes and the wrapping paper and the mismatched socks. My hand smells like iron and Crisco. I smell the smoke in my hair, on my clothes, on Pitch standing over me. “There’s so much shit,” I say, wiping my eyes, trying to straighten up.
“Move,” Pitch says. He steps around me and starts hauling down more boxes. “They ain’t in none of these?”
I shake my head, and he kicks them away, pushing them to the middle of the room.
“Hurry up,” he says.
I open up a box, still sniffling. Outside, big trucks are tearing around the block. A police siren blasts over the noise, and Sammy Boyd, the new cop who went to school with Reney, announces in his official voice that, “The mayor has issued a mandatory evacuation. All residents must leave immediately. Drive east on 82 or south on 59. Immediately.” His voice trails off, making a bigger deal out of “mandatory” and “immediately” on the next block.
“Shut up, stupid-ass Sammy Boyd,” I yell.
“No joke,” Pitch says.
My fingers are shaking and snot’s dripping out of my nose, but I keep digging to the bottom of the boxes he pulls out of the closet, finding nothing but old clothes packed away for a garage sale and more Christmas stuff, a whole Wrangler nativity scene done out of cowboys, the Virgin a barrel racer in tight jeans.
Pitch’s got all the boxes out, and he kneels down beside me to go through the last ones. “Is this it?” he asks, holding up a book covered in blue quilting.
I snatch it from him and open it, dropping the Christmas goat I was holding. Pitch looks over my shoulder and sees where the father side of Reney’s birth certificate is blank. He doesn’t mention it, and never has. He just knows that whoever Reney’s real father is, he isn’t around. Pitch puts his hand next to the tiny footprints.
“Tiny little thing, wasn’t she?”
“Little?” I tell him. “You try squeezing eight pounds and nine ounces out when you ain’t no more than a baby yourself.”
“Pretty big,” I say, flipping through the book. “But she didn’t make a peep.”
Pitch smiles and shakes his head. Then he stands up, his knees popping. He strokes my hair once, like he hasn’t done in a long, long time. “Reckon we got to load the horses and dogs. See if we can’t find that damn cat.”
“I might’ve seen your old coveralls in the shed,” I say.
“Come on.” He pulls me up by the hand. We stand there for a minute and look at each other, and I try not to think about what comes after the trucks are loaded. Pitch leans in and kisses me, first on the forehead, then on the lips. “Sorry about all that,” he says.
About that time, Sammy Boyd comes back around the block, hitting that damned police siren, saying “Immediately” like he’s the governor of Texas.
Pitch shakes his head and walks into the living room. I follow him with the baby box in my hands. He stands there, looking at my boxes and labels, biting his bottom lip. “You pack pretty quick,” he says. His lip’s chapped and bleeding, and without thinking, I wipe away the blood with my thumb. “Wind’s whipping out there,” he says. “Reckon we ought to leave immediately.”
I don’t laugh and neither does he. He picks up a box of knickknacks and piles a garbage bag on top of it, and I put a bag on top of the baby stuff and take off after him. He balances my knickknacks on his knee and has to fight the wind to open the door. He almost drops it all but grabs ahold just in time.
“Looks bad,” he yells. “Saw Daddy downtown with his mare. Think it already got the river, Momma and Daddy’s place probably.” We stack the boxes in the back of my truck, and he says, “Hundred-foot flames.”
The wind carries away whatever I try to say.
“Daddy says he ain’t leaving. Says he’ll save the mare.”
“With a water hose?”
“Hell, I don’t know. He’s sitting in the D.Q. parking lot with her loaded, wearing his spurs and a bandana tied around his neck, poking around looking for a damn cup of coffee. Shit,” he says. “I should’ve put the sprinkler on the house.” He takes off running around the side of the house. I go after him to see if I can help, but of course there’s just one hose, one sprinkler.
“Well,” Pitch says, screwing on the sprinkler, “can you take our horses?”
“Maybe I should run check on Ms. Johnny.” I look toward our neighbor’s house.
“I saw her and her daughter heading out on the way over. The horses?” he asks, turning the sprinkler on high, aiming it at the roof, wiping the grit out of his eyes with his shoulder.
“What about your daddy?”
Pitch just looks at me and sighs and then looks back to the roof.
“Help me get the trailer on,” I say. “Then you go on and I’ll get them.”
He sets the sprinkler then backs my truck up to the rusty stock trailer, while I run out to the back lot with a gallon can of oats, a halter and a lead rope looped over my shoulder, calling up the paint mare and her little colt. Usually, Gertie’s easy to catch. Hell, when Pitch brushes her, he’ll duck under her belly and come up on the other side to show off what gentle horses he raises. “That there’s a Barnes horse,” he’ll say, rubbing her above her tail.
But she won’t come to me. The colt’s only a month or so old, and I guess the smoke in the air and the tin banging against the barn have her spooked. She stays far back, on the other side of the lot, nickering real low, jerking her head up and down, stamping her feet in the dust, making sure to keep herself between me and that colt. “Come on, Gertie, we got to take a drive,” I tell her, shaking the oats in the can, losing half of them to the wind. She’s not one bit interested. When I take a step toward her, she throws up her head, wild-eyed, and runs to the other side of the lot with the colt following after her. I take another step, and she runs to the opposite side again.
“You just got to go up and grab her,” Pitch says, out of breath. He takes the halter off my shoulder and walks up and loops the rope over her neck, patting her, saying, “Whoa, Mom. Easy, girl.” Then he slides the halter over her head and buckles it easy as can be. Her eyes are still wide, seeing everything and keeping a close watch on her colt, but she just jerks her head once and settles in to be led wherever he wants her to go.
“The tin had her spooked,” I yell. But he’s already unlatching the gate to lead her to the trailer, with the colt trotting along behind.
The air is getting thicker, and you can see the big orange flames at Comanche Hill now. I load the two dogs in the cab of my truck real quick while Pitch wrestles with the cat. The sun’s going down, and the wind isn’t letting up. It’s coming.
Pitch cusses at his truck until it starts, then asks me to fly by the D.Q. before I leave. He wants to talk his Daddy into following me or at least into putting his mare in with the ones Pitch has all the sudden taken to calling “ours.” I tell him why the hell not, that I don’t have nothing but time.
At the D.Q., I see Pitch has left his fire gloves on my dashboard, so I run them over to his truck while he argues with his daddy. Laying there on the seat beneath a tangle of bits and spurs is one of his momma’s quilts bunched up, halfway folded. Reney’s belt buckle from the Ft. Worth Fat Stock Show Calf Scramble is sticking out of the edges of the fold. Pitch and his daddy are still talking, shaking their heads and throwing their arms up in the air, and I sit down in the driver’s seat. I push the bits on the floor and flip the quilt back. Pitch’s got a couple of pictures of me and Reney fishing that summer he took us to New Mexico with him, and there’s one of the winner’s circle at the World Wide Futurity when he won on Miss Easy Pocahontas, his daddy’s pride and joy. Pitch looks like another person sitting on top of that mare. His face is splattered with mud and he’s small, but he looks like he could do anything. His daddy’s standing there grinning ear to ear, holding the horse’s reins, and I’m beside him holding onto his arm with one hand and Reney’s head with the other.
I drop the quilt back over the pictures and run back to my truck, dropping Pitch’s gloves on his floorboard and leaving his door wide open. He looks over at me and shakes his head, then comes jogging over.
“Go on. Daddy won’t come.”
“I’m afraid I’m leaving something,” I say.
“You got what you need,” he says, jumping a leg into the coveralls. There’s a rip in the thigh.
“Will those be okay?” I ask him.
“Go on, now.”
“Be careful,” I say.
“Love you, Just.”
A water tanker from the fire department comes by, and Pitch takes off running to catch up, leaving his door open, forgetting his gloves.
I start my truck and head east with the rest of the Beverly Hillbillies, relieved Pitch hadn’t put his daddy’s horse in with the other two. I don’t need that on my conscience, too. The superintendent, Mr. Biggar, is in front of me, and Pitch’s cousin Jason and his wife Darlene and their boy stay right behind me the whole way. When the traffic stops, we get out and drink Cokes and ask if anybody knows anything new. Nobody ever does. We sit on that highway most of the night, hardly moving, ducking when the giant tanker planes fly over, watching the wind, listening to the radio and the mare stomping in the trailer. The wind changes while we sit idling, starts coming from the south, shaking the truck and trailer from side to side instead of pushing us from behind. We all agree that’s a real good thing for Bonita.
When we get to Gainesville, Jason and Darlene go on to a gas station, and I stop in a church parking lot to check on the horses and let the dogs out. Gerti’s happy to see me this time and nickers for me to hurry up while I find a waterspout. I put the lead rope on her and open the gate. Out both of them come, Gertie shaking her head and the little colt nervous at first, peeking all around before he bucks a couple of willies, running circles around us both, sniffing noses with the dogs. I give Gertie some alfalfa, and lean back on the truck to watch the colt nurse. Even there in the half-light of the church parking lot I can see it: he’s a good-looking horse.
When Jason and Darlene pull up, I haven’t even noticed that the wind has died down, and I’m feeling halfway comfortable. Darlene’s sitting in the middle of the seat, her face all washed out and pale, leaning her head over on Jason’s shoulder. Their boy’s asleep in a car seat in the back, fine hair pressed to his face. “They opened up 82 West,” Jason says. “Want to follow us back in?”
Mom’s is another four hours north.
“They know anything yet?”
“Don’t sound good, but I guess we’ll see.”
“Ya’ll go on,” I tell him. “I’ll load these horses in a minute.”
They take off to see if they still have a house, and I sit there listening to Gertie stomp gravel and the streetlight buzz until the sun starts warming the side of my face. I start thinking about the firefighters back in Bonita and about all them folks on cots, thinking about the cedar cross Pitch peeled and nailed for his momma. Remembering Reney’s hair when it was fine and resting against a car seat on this very same road, me driving like crazy, headed to Bonita or away from it. Thinking about what those horses are worth, afraid of what I’m about to do. Scared of my new old life in Oklahoma, scared of the one passing me by. Then I get to thinking about those hundred-foot flames and Pitch’s five-foot, three inches. And I can’t hardly stand it. It’s all so much bigger than him and bigger than me, bigger than us together. I stand up and shake the blood back to my numb legs.
Gertie’s chomping alfalfa and shaking flies from her ears. That colt stops nudging Gertie for milk and takes a step toward me. Gertie speaks up a little, watches from the corner of her eye, and goes back to her hay. I squat down and ease my hand toward the colt, and he nibbles at my finger, leaving a string of milky slobber trailing from my hand to his mouth. Then he walks back over to his momma, turns his face to the sun, lets his ears droop, and sighs. I know what probably I knew all along. Those horses aren’t mine, and I can’t no more take them across the Red River than I could leave not knowing if Pitch is okay.
On the drive back, sunlight shows me what we missed the night before. Farmers had to rush to cut down their own fences, and there’s cows all over the road. Some are orange from the chemicals the planes dumped. Some are half-burned and paralyzed from the fear and pain. Calves bawl for their mommas, and black bunches of stiff-legged and hairless cows smolder, cornered into triangles of barbed wire that don’t burn. You wouldn’t believe the smell. The fields are giant squares of black, as far as a body can see.
But the fire is gone. A couple of farmers are already hooking up dead cows to ropes and hauling them off over the burned-out stubble, taking them to wherever you take the things that don’t make it. I pick up John Brown live from 7, and he says the news is not all bad. Some homes made it on account of the flames being so big they jumped the houses that had been watered down enough and just went on, like the fire wasn’t satisfied with the house before it and went looking for one that wasn’t so much work. Getting closer I see a burned-out car sitting on the ground, all the rubber burned off the tires. The fire was so hot it busted out all the car’s windows and painted the thing in ashes, but right next to it, a little wooden swing-set stands fine as can be. John Brown calls the area a “war zone.”
The D.Q. sign, lit up same as always, is the first thing I see when I pull into Bonita. I let off the gas and roll down the window, spreading my fingers against the wind. The old Belt Company building across the street is ashes. A man’s standing there, talking in front of a camera, telling the world about our ruin. A couple of snot-nosed kids try to make him laugh, not a care in this world. A group of men stand around drinking coffee.
Pitch and his daddy sit on a tailgate in the sunshine, their feet dangling below them. Their heads hang low, but I can see them smiling through their black faces, talking. Pitch looks over, and I put the truck in park. He wipes his face with his sleeve and spits on the ground between his legs, keeping his eyes on me. Then he shakes his daddy’s hand, squeezes his shoulder, and walks over.
“It’s gone,” he says. “Skipped over Ms. Johnny’s and burned ours clean to the ground. Nothing left but floorboards in the bathroom and the iron fence in the horse lot.” He hangs his hands on the trailer panels and leans his head there.
“We tried to save it.”
I slide down onto the wheel well beside him.
“Wasn’t nothing we could do, Just.”
Gertie stomps on the boards, ready to get out. Pitch doesn’t move. He’s still looking at the horses, biting his lip, holding on to the trailer. I lean my forehead next to his hands. They’re rough and black, cut up from fighting fire. He smells like smoke. I can still smell the mare and her colt, all their alfalfa, all their shit, their sweat and dust. I can even smell the milk from that baby colt.
“You really think he’s a runner?” I say.
“All a man can do is put one in the gates, open them up and hold on,” Pitch says. He stretches his back and waves once to his daddy.
Pitch squeezes my hand, and then he gets in his truck, starts it up, and drives down 82 with his arm hanging low out the window. I stand there watching, feeling my insides swelling bigger, getting ready, trying to take all in, and when he turns off on our road, I follow him to see for myself what’s left.
Kelli Jo Ford
was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and now lives in Colorado with her husband, Scott; daughter, Cypress; and dog, Sylvia Plath Weaver-Ford. She is a recent Dobie Paisano fellow and has work in Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial
, Drunken Boat
, and SmokeLong Quarterly
. You can find her at http://kellijoford.blogspot.com/