Elizabeth Wetmore: 'Valentine' (Part One)

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Author, Elizabeth Wetmore. Photo by Carrie Allen.

Elizabeth Wetmore discusses her debut novel, “Valentine,” and Southern conservatism that wants to steer clear of the uglier parts of life. “Valentine” begins with a fourteen-year-old Mexican-American girl crawling out of a truck, she has been raped, she makes her way across the desert and knocks on a door—and from here the book takes you in a dazzling number of directions. A novel shaped by the voices of women in 1970s West Texas, with characters subject to the mores of a time and place—racism, sexism—it is the story of those who are heroic within the confines of their own lives.

An excerpt from“Valentine,” by Elizabeth Wetmore.

I used to believe a person could teach herself to be merciful if she tried hard enough to walk in somebody else’s shoes, if she was willing to do the hard work of imagining the heart and mind of a thief, say, or a murderer, or a man who drove a fourteen-year-old girl out into the oil patch and spent the night raping her. I tried to imagine how it might have been for Dale Strickland:

The sun was already crawling toward high sky when he woke up, dick sore and dying of thirst, his jaw locked in a familiar amphetamine clench. His mouth tasted like he had been sucking on the nozzle of a gas can, and there was a bruise the size of a fist on his left thigh, maybe from hours pressed against the gearshift. Hard to say, but he knew one thing for sure. He felt like shit. Like somebody had beaten both sides of his head with a boot. There was blood on his face and shirt and boot. He pressed his fingers against his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Turned his hands over and over looking for cuts, then pressed them against the sides of his head. Maybe he unzipped and examined himself. There was some blood, but he couldn’t find any obvious wounds. Maybe he unfolded himself from the front seat of his pickup truck and stood outside for a minute, letting the harmless winter sun warm his skin. Maybe he marveled at the day’s unseasonable warmth, its unusual stillness, just as I had earlier that morning when I stepped onto my front porch and turned my face to the sun and watched a half dozen turkey buzzards gather in large, slow circles. The work of mercy means seeing him rooting around in the bed of his truck for a jug of water and then standing out there in the oil field, turning 360 degrees, slow as he could manage it, while he tried to account for his last fourteen hours. Maybe he didn’t even remember the girl until he saw her sneakers tumbled against the truck’s tire, or her jacket lying in a heap next to the drilling platform, a rabbit skin that fell just below her waist, her name written on the inside label in blue pen. G. Ramírez. I want him to think, What have I done? I want him to remember. It might have taken him a little longer to understand that he had to find her, to make sure she was okay, or maybe to make sure they were clear about what had happened out there. Maybe he sat on the tailgate, drinking musty water from his canteen and wishing he could remember the details of her face. He scuffed a boot against the ground and tried to bring the previous night into focus, looking again at the girl’s shoes and jacket then lifting his gaze to the oil derricks, the ranch road and railroad tracks, the scarce Sunday traffic on the interstate and behind that, if you looked real hard, a farmhouse. My house. Maybe he thought the house looked too far to walk to. But you never know. These local girls were tough as nails, and one who was mad? Hell, she might be able to walk barefoot through hell’s fires, if she made up her mind to do it. He pushed himself off the tailgate and squinted into the jug. There was just enough water to clean up a little. He bent down in front of the driver’s mirror and ran his fingers through his hair, made a plan. He would take a piss, if he could manage it, and then drive over to that farmhouse and have a little look-see. Maybe he’d get lucky and the place would be abandoned, and he’d find his new girlfriend sitting out there on a rotting front porch, thirsty as a peach tree in August and happy as hell to see him again. Maybe, but mercy is hard in a place like this. I wished him dead before I ever saw his face.

When the time comes and I am called to take the stand, I will testify that I was the first person to see Gloria Ramírez alive. That poor girl, I will tell them. I don’t know how a child comes back from something like this. The trial will not be until August, but I’ll tell those men in the courtroom the same thing I will tell my daughter when I think she’s old enough to hear it.

That it had been a bad winter for our family, even before that morning in February. The price of cattle was falling by the minute, and there had been no rain for six months. We had to supplement with feed corn, and some of the cows foraged for licorice root to help them abort their calves. If not for the oil leases, we might have had to sell some of our land.

That most days, my husband drove around the ranch with the only two men who hadn’t left us for more money in the oil patch. The men threw silage off the back of the truck and fought screwworms. They pulled out half-dead cows that got tangled in barbed wire—they are stupid animals, don’t let anybody tell you different—and if an animal couldn’t be saved, they shot it between the eyes and let the buzzards do the rest. I will tell them that Robert worked all day, every day, even Sundays, because a cow can die just as easily on the Sabbath as any other. Other than the fifteen minutes it took him to choke down a plateful of pot roast—you spend half the day cooking it, and they eat it in less than five minutes—I hardly ever saw my husband. What we need is a tougher brand of cow, he’d say as he stacked his fork and knife on his plate and hand it to me on his way out the door. We need some Polled Herefords or Red Brangus. How do you think we’re going to afford that, he’d say. What are we going to do?

When I think back on that day and finding Gloria Ramírez on my front porch, my memories are stitched together like pieces of a scrap quilt, each a different shape and color, all bound together by a thin black ribbon, and I expect it will always be this way. Come August, I will testify that I did the best I could, under the circumstances, but I will not tell them how I failed her.

I was twenty-six years old, seven months pregnant with my second baby, and heavy as a Buick. With the second one, you always get bigger faster—so say the women in my family— and I had been feeling lonely enough that I occasionally let Aimee stay home from school with some invented malady, just to have a little company. Two days earlier, we had called the school secretary, Miss Eunice Lee.

As soon as I hung up the phone, Aimee Jo started mimicking Miss Lee’s crabby old face. Some people say she’s a direct descendent, and I don’t believe it for a minute, but I will tell you this: if it is true, she sure didn’t inherit the general’s good looks. Bless her heart. My daughter scrunched up her face and pretended to hold the school’s phone next to her ear. Well, thank you for calling, Mrs. Whitehead, but I do not care to know the details of Miss Aimee Jo’s BMs. I hope she feels better real soon. Y’all have a happy Valentine’s Day. Bye-bye! Aimee wiggled her fingers in the air, and the two of us just fell out laughing. Then we started a batch of yeast rolls to eat with butter and sugar.

It was a small thing, me and Aimee standing together in the kitchen while we waited for the dough to rise, the whole day stretched out in front of us like an old housecat, the two of us laughing so hard at her impression of Miss Lee that we nearly peed ourselves. But I sometimes think that when I am on my deathbed, that Friday morning with my daughter will be one of my happiest memories.

On Sunday morning, we were playing gin rummy and listening to church services on the radio. Aimee was losing, and I was trying to figure out how to throw the game without her catching on. While I waited for her to draw the four of hearts, I passed cards and dropped hints. Won’t you be my valentine? Won’t you be my heart? I said. Oh, my heart! I can hear it beating—one, two, three, four times, Aimee Jo. Back then, I did not believe it was good for a child to lose at cards too often, especially a little girl. Now I think differently.

We listened to Pastor Rob finish a sermon about the evils of desegregation, which he likened to locking a cow, a mountain lion, and a possum in the same barn together, then being surprised when somebody gets eaten.

What’s that mean? my daughter asked me. She pulled a card from the deck, looked at it for a few seconds and laid her cards on the table. I win, she said.

Nothing you need to know about, little girl, I told her. You have to say gin. My daughter was nine years old, just a few years younger than the stranger I was about to find standing at my door, waiting for me to pull open that heavy door, to help.

It was eleven o’clock. I am sure of this because one of the deacons—one of those Hard Shell types that doesn’t believe in having any fun—gave the sending prayer. I don’t suppose any serious Baptist would think too kindly about us playing cards while we listened to church services on the radio, but that’s how it was. After eleven, it’s the oil reports, then the cattle markets. That month, you listened to rig counts and new leases if you wanted to hear good news. If you wanted to sit down in your recliner and have yourself a good cry, you listened to the cattle markets.

The girl knocked on the front door, two short and sturdy raps that were loud enough to startle us. When she knocked a third time, the door trembled. It was brand-new, made of oak but stained to look like mahogany. Two weeks earlier, Robert had it shipped down from Lubbock after we had our same old argument about whether we ought to move to town. It was a familiar argument. He thought we were too far away from town, especially with another baby coming and the oil boom getting under way. It’s busy out here now, he argued, drilling crews driving all over our land. No place for women, or little girls. But this fight got ugly and we said some things. Threats, I guess you could say.

Of course, I was tired of watching flatbed trucks tear up our road, tired of the stink, a cross between rotten eggs and gasoline, tired of worrying that some roughneck would for- get to close the gate behind him and one of our bulls would end up on the highway, or Texaco would dump wastewater in the unlined pit they built too close to our well. But I love our house, which Robert’s grandfather built fifty years earlier with limestone he hauled in little by little, in the back of his truck, from the Hill Country. I love the birds that stop over every fall on their way to Mexico or South America, and again in the spring on their way back north. If we moved into town, I would miss the pair of mourning doves that nest under our porch and the kestrels that hover just a few feet above the pale earth, their wings beating madly in the seconds before they swoop down and fetch up a snake, and the sky going mad with color twice a day. I would miss the quiet, a night sky uninterrupted by anything except the occasional glow of red or blue when casinghead gases are being flared off.

Well, this is my home, I told him. I’m not leaving.

At some point, I punched Robert in the chest, a thing I had never done before. He couldn’t hit me back because I was pregnant, but he sure could throw a fist into our front door three, four times. Now I had this pretty new door, and because she had lain in bed listening to us scream at each other in the kitchen, Aimee Jo got a new bicycle, a little Huffy with pink streamers and a small white basket.

We heard the three loud raps and Aimee said, Who’s that? When I thought about it later, when I saw how badly Gloria had been beaten, I was surprised she was able to muster it, to make that thick oak tremble beneath her fist. I hauled myself out of the recliner. We were not expecting company. Nobody comes out this far without calling first, not even the Witnesses or Adventists, and I hadn’t heard a truck or car coming up our road. I bent down and picked up the Louisville Slugger that Aimee had left on the floor next to my chair. You stay put, I said. I’ll be right back.

I opened the door just as a little capful of wind picked up, disturbing a cluster of flies that had settled in her hair, on her face, in the wounds on her hands and feet, and my gorge rose. Christ Almighty, I thought and looked up the dirt lane leading from our house to the ranch road. All quiet, aside from a noisy flock of sand hill cranes wintering next to our stock tank.

Gloria Ramírez stood on my front porch tottering   like a skinny drunk, looking for all the world as if she had just crawled down from the screen of a horror movie. Both eyes were blackened, one swollen nearly shut. Her cheeks, fore- head, and elbows were scraped raw, and vicious scrapes covered her legs and feet. I snugged my fingers around the baseball bat and yelled at my daughter. Aimee Jo Whitehead, run to my bedroom and get Old Lady out of the closet, and bring it here right now. Carry it the right way.

I could hear her moving through the house, and I yelled that she was not to run with my rifle in her hands. When she walked up behind me, I kept my body between her and the stranger on the porch. I reached behind me to take my dear old Winchester from my daughter’s small hand. Old Lady, I’d named that rifle, after the grandma who gave it to me on my fifteenth birthday.

What is it, Mama, rattlesnake? Coyote?

Hush up, I said. Run to the kitchen and call the sheriff’s office. Tell them to bring an ambulance. And Aimee, I said without taking my eyes off the child in front of me, you stay away from those windows or I will beat you to within an inch of your life.

Not once have I beaten my daughter, not once. I got whipped when I was a little girl, and I swore up and down I’d never do it to my own kids. But on this morning, I meant what I said and Aimee believed me, I guess. Without a word of argument, she turned and ran to the kitchen.

I looked again at the child faltering on my porch then glanced away for long enough to scan the horizon. It’s flat enough out here that nobody can sneak up on you, flat enough you can see your husband’s pickup truck parked next to a water tank and know he’s still too far away to hear you shouting for him. You can drive for miles out here without the road turning or lifting, not even a little bit. I stepped farther onto the porch. I couldn’t see anybody who might want to hurt us, but I couldn’t see anybody who might want to help us either.

And now, for the first time since we moved to Robert’s family land, I wished to be elsewhere. For ten years I had been keeping an eye out for snakes and sandstorms and twisters. When a coyote killed one of my chickens and drug it through the yard, I shot him. When I went to draw a bath for Aimee and found a scorpion in the tub, I stepped on it. When a rattle- snake curled up underneath the clothesline or next to Aimee’s little bicycle, I took a hoe to it. Daily, it seemed, I was shooting something or chopping it to pieces or dumping poison down its burrow. I was always disposing of bodies.

Imagine me standing on my porch with one hand on my belly, the other using Old Lady as a crutch while I try to re- member what I had for breakfast—cup of Folgers, piece of cold bacon, the cigarette I sneaked when I went out to the barn to gather eggs. Imagine my stomach turning itself inside out when I bend down to face the stranger on my porch, when I swallow hard and push the salt from my mouth, when I say, Where are you from, honey? Odessa?

Imagine that hearing the name of her hometown breaks whatever fearsome spell the girl is under. She rubs at her eye and winces. When she begins to speak the words come rough, like grains of sand blown through a screen door.

Can I have a glass of water? My mother is Alma Ramírez.

She works nights, but she will be home by now.

What is your name?

Glory. Can I have some ice water?

Imagine the girl might be asking after my okra patch, calm as she seems, remote, and it is this horror hiding behind in- difference that finally causes something to tear loose, to break apart from the rest of me. In a few years, when I think she’s old enough to hear it, I will tell my daughter that my lower belly cramped and went cold as a block of ice. A steady hum started in my ears, faint but growing louder, and I remembered a few lines of a rhyme I had read back in high school, the winter before I left school and married Robert—I heard a fly buzz— when I died—and for a few cramping, cold and miserable seconds, until I felt the unmistakable kick, I thought I was losing the baby. My vision dimmed and I remembered another verse, stray and unconnected to anything. How strange it was to be thinking of poems now, when I had not given them so much as a passing thought all these years since I had become a grown woman, a wife and mother, but now I recalled: This is the Hour of Lead—Remembered, if outlived.

I stood up straight and shook my head gently, as if doing so might help me clear away all that was happening right in front of me, as if I could clear away the terrible fact of this child and whatever hell she had endured, as if I could step back into my living room and tell my daughter, It’s just the wind, honey. Don’t pay any attention, it’s not calling our name today. How about another game of gin? You want to learn how to play Hold’em?

Instead, I leaned heavily on the rifle and rested my other hand on my belly. I am going to get you a glass of ice water, I said to her, and then we’ll call your mama.

The girl gently shifted from side to side, a halo of sand and dirt rising up around her face and hair. For a few seconds, she was a dust cloud, a sandstorm asking for help, the wind begging for a little mercy. My hand reached out to her, as the other stretched behind me to lean the rifle against the door- frame. She leaned hard to one side, a reed in the wind, and when I turned back to grab her—to keep her from falling off the porch or maybe just trying to keep myself upright, I will never be able to say for sure—she ducked her head slightly. Dust filled the sky behind her.

A pickup truck had turned off the ranch road and was starting toward our house. When it passed our mailbox, the driver swerved suddenly, as if briefly distracted by a quail darting across the dirt road. The vehicle skidded toward our stock tank, then straightened out and kept on. The driver was still at least a mile off, rumbling steadily up our road, kicking up dirt and ruddying the air. Whoever he was, he drove like he knew exactly where he was going, and he was in no real hurry to get there.

From VALENTINE. Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Wetmore. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Host:
Michael Silverblatt

Producers:
Shawn Sullivan, Alan Howard