Valentine Page 1


Sunday morning begins out here in the oil patch, a few minutes before dawn, with a young roughneck stretched out and sleeping hard in his pickup truck. Shoulders pressed against the driver’s side door, boots propped up on the dashboard, he wears his cowboy hat pulled down far enough that the girl sitting outside on the dusty ground can see only his pale jaw. Freckled and nearly hairless, it is a face that will never need a daily shave, no matter how old he gets, but she is hoping he dies young.

Gloria Ramírez holds herself perfectly still, she is a downed mesquite branch, a half-buried stone, and she imagines him facedown in the dust, lips and cheeks scoured by sand, his thirst relieved only by the blood in his mouth. When he startles and shifts roughly against the truck door, she holds her breath and watches his jaw clench, the muscle working bone against bone. The sight of him is a torment and she wishes again that his death will come soon, that it will be vicious and lonely, with nobody to grieve for him.

The sky turns purple in the east, then blue-black, then old-bucket slate. In a few minutes it will be stained orange and red, and if she looks, Gloria will see the land stretched tight beneath the sky, brown stitched to blue, same as always. It is a sky without end, and the best thing about West Texas, when you can remember to look at it. She will miss it when she goes. Because she can’t stay here, not after this.

She keeps her eyes on the pickup truck and her fingers begin to press themselves lightly against the sand, counting one, two, three, four—they are trying to keep her from making any sudden moves, to keep her quiet, to keep her among the living for another day. Because Gloria Ramírez might not know much on this morning, February 15, 1976, but she knows this: if he hadn’t passed out before he sobered up enough to find his gun or get his hands around her throat, she would already be dead. Fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four—she waits and watches, listens as some little animal moves through the mesquite, and the sun, that small, regular mercy, heaves itself over the earth’s edge and hangs burning in the east. And her fingers keep on.

Daylight reveals miles of pumpjacks and oil-field litter, jackrabbits and barbed-wire fences, clumps of mesquite trees and buffalo grass. In piles of caliche and stacks of old pipeline rat snakes and copperheads and rattlers lie entwined, their breath slow and regular, waiting for spring. When morning has come all the way in, she sees a road and behind that, a farmhouse. It may be close enough to walk to, but it’s hard to say. Out here one mile can look like ten, ten could be twenty, and she knows only that this body—yesterday, she would have called it mine—sits in a pile of sand, somewhere in the oil patch, too far from town to see the water tank with her town’s name painted on the side, Odessa, or the bank building, or the cooling towers at the petrochemical plant where her mother works. Soon, Alma will come home from a night spent cleaning offices and break shacks. When she steps into the one-bedroom apartment that still smells of last night’s hominy and pork, and Tío’s cigarettes, when she sees that the sofa bed where Gloria sleeps is still made up from the day before, Alma might feel worried, maybe even a little afraid, but mostly she will be pissed off that her daughter is not home where she belongs, again.

Gloria scans the pumpjacks moving up and down, great steel grasshoppers, always hungry. Did he drive them as far as Penwell? Mentone? Loving County? Because the Permian Basin is eighty thousand square miles of the same old, same old, and she could be anywhere, and the only true things are her thirst and pain, and the roughneck’s occasional sighs, his teeth grinding and body shifting, the click and hum of the pumpjack just a few yards away from where she sits.

When a bobwhite begins to call its own name, the sound gently pries the morning open. Gloria looks again at the farmhouse. A dirt road slices the desert in half, a straight line moving steadily toward a front porch she is already starting to imagine. Maybe it’s close enough to walk to, maybe a woman will answer the door.

He has not moved when her fingers push the last number into the sand, a shaky one thousand. Gloria turns her head slowly back and forth, and understanding that it is her silence as much as anything else that’s keeping her alive, she wordlessly considers the pieces of her body as they appear to her. Arm. Here is an arm, a foot. The foot bone’s connected to the heel bone, she thinks, and the heel bone’s connected to the anklebone. And over there, on the ground next to the wooden drill platform, her heart. She turns her head this way and that, gathering the body, covering it with clothes that lie torn and strewn around the site, as if they are trash, disregarded and cast aside, instead of her favorite black T-shirt, the blue jeans her mother gave her for Christmas, the matching bra and panties she stole from Sears.

She knows she shouldn’t, but when it is time to go Gloria cannot help looking at the roughneck. Thin wisps of blond hair crawl out from under the felt edge of his cowboy hat. Skinny and gristle tough, he is just a few years older than Gloria, who will be fifteen next fall, if she survives this day. Now his chest rises and falls regular, just like anybody else’s, but otherwise he is still. Still asleep, or pretending to be.

Gloria’s mind skitters into this thought like a horse into a hidden skein of barbed wire. Her mouth falls open then jerks itself closed. She is oxygen starved and gasping, a fish torn from a lake. She imagines her own limbs disconnected, fleeing into the desert to be picked clean by the coyotes she heard calling to each other all through the night. She imagines her bones blanched and worn smooth by the wind—a desert filled with them—and this makes her want to shriek, to open her mouth and howl. Instead, she swallows hard and sits back down in the sand, shutting her eyes tight against both the roughneck and the sun brightening, interminable sky.

She must not panic. To panic is the worst possible thing, her uncle would say. When Tío tells a war story—and since he came home last year, every story is a war story—he begins the same way. Know what you call a soldier who panics, Gloria? KIA, that’s what. He ends his stories the same way, too. Listen, an army man never panics. Don’t you ever panic, Gloria. You panic and—he forms his index finger into a pistol, presses it against his heart, and pulls the trigger—bang. And if there is only one thing she knows for sure on this morning, it is that she doesn’t want to die, so she jams two fists hard against her mouth and she tells herself to stand back up. Try not to make a sound. Move.

Then Gloria Ramírez—for years to come, her name will hover like a swarm of yellow jackets over the local girls, a warning about what not to do, what never to do—stands up. She does not go back for her shoes, when she thinks of them, or the rabbit fur jacket she was wearing last night when the young man pulled into the parking lot at the Sonic, his forearm hanging out the open window, sparse freckles and golden hair glistening beneath the drive-in’s fluorescent lights.

Hey there, Valentine. His words took the ugly right out of the drive-in, his soft drawl marking him as not from here, but not that far away either. Gloria’s mouth went dry as a stick of chalk. She was standing next to the lone picnic table, a shaky wooden hub in the midst of a few cars and trucks, doing what she always did on a Saturday night. Hanging around, drinking limeades and begging smokes, waiting for something to happen, which it never did, not in this piss-ant town.

He parked close enough that Gloria could see the oil patch on him, even through the windshield. His cheeks and neck were wind-burned, his fingers stained black. Maps and invoices covered his dashboard, and a hard hat hung on a rack above the seat. Empty beer cans lay crushed and scattered across the truck’s bed, along with crowbars and jugs of water. All of it added up to a pretty good picture of the warnings Gloria had been hearing her whole life. And now he was telling her his name—Dale Strickland—and asking for hers.