When they turned off the highway, Reney stuck her head out the window . Even the wind was hot. The empty-eyed trailer house that Pitch pointed out ahead stood like a beacon in the sea of bluestem and coastal fields. Horse lots lined the driveway. Pumping units bobbed in the fields as far as she could see.
“Flatter than a flitter,” her mom said and rolled the window back up.
That night, Reney fell hard asleep in the pitch and sway of her new Texas home but slept fitfully. She woke to the mares’ stamping feet and sweet grumbling as the sun came up. She could have listened to the sounds of waking up in Texas all morning, but before long, an argument pushed through the thin walls. It seemed Pitch had remembered the trailer’s anchors but forgotten the tie-downs. The trailer shook in the slightest breeze. Her mom hadn’t slept a bit.
Reney was dressed and pushing a tire swing off the trunk of an ancient oak when the yelling picked up. The wind carried her mom’s broken words to her. A tin can in Tornado Alley. Reney fought the urge to run between them, to tell them she was only half-finished unpacking her room, to say, It’s okay, we can still go home. She knew all they’d hear coming from her mouth was . Instead, she wrested her weight up, up, up the rope until she perched on a stout limb, high enough above it all that the voices could almost be coming from someone else’s house altogether.
Even there, the argument crashed against her insides. She focused hard on the blue she knew would be in the air around her if only she were far enough away to see it. She counted the fence posts north to the Red River, then imagined them stretching 250 miles back to her granny’s house in Oklahoma. She hummed “She’s running, I’m flying” and picked at the red lines the bark had pressed into her thighs. Tiny black ants crawled over her fingers. Armpit sweat tickled her ribs. The voices receded out beyond the bluestem and coastal, only to roll back in again. She imagined the trailer was a ship that would float away high into the blue, blue sky if everybody stepped outside at once .
Below her, the flimsy door slapped open. Then, footsteps on metal stairs. The trailer stayed grounded, but gravel had already begun to fly by the time Pitch’s truck door slammed shut. Reney jumped from the tree and landed like a spring, hands touching earth only to piston her upright. She crossed her arms, watching the trail of dust rise over the hill. Across the driveway, her mother raised a hand to her.
Reney felt the violence of her first North Texas storm that night, learning a fear she would never relinquish as the trailer rocked from side to side and the sky around them flashed. The next morning, she woke to more yelling about things she did not understand. Eventually the fight turned, as it would until the end of time, to money, but by evening, Pitch surfaced filthy and soaked with sweat but proud of his work. Her mom rummaged through boxes, and hamburger meat fried on the small stove. The trailer house was stuck to the North Texas clay.
Mares ran the squares of their lots, far from any winner’s circle, and the pastures around them chugged and clacked with other people’s money like they always had and always would. Not more than a mile away, the Red River demarcated the beginning, or the end, of Oklahoma, but their past life in Indian Country might as well have been a ghost.
Reney was sitting on the truck’s bench seat between her mom and Pitch when they saw the big rattler looping into the dirt road. By the time she clicked her flashlight off and put her spelling book down, Pitch had already skidded the truck to a stop and jumped out, leaving the door open. Her mom, who’d been complaining about all the country music stations, left the dial where it was. The high beams bore through the darkness , and light glinted off Pitch’s .357 when he stepped into view.
“Stay here,” her mom said. She grabbed Pitch’s big white ear protectors from the dash. The other door slammed, and Reney was alone.
After they’d stopped to fill the ice chest earlier that evening, Reney had opened her spelling book and begun to tune them out. Her mom, though, took the book from her and started calling out words. Pitch was cutting up, cracking jokes as usual, and her mom was in a good mood, but backroading wasn’t how Reney wanted to spend her Saturday night. She had two tests Monday. Knowing they’d be out late, before they left she’d put on the green football jersey she slept in. She’d gotten good at tuning things out. But the snake, the open door’s steady dinging, and the radio static. It all had Reney feeling uneasy .
She shivered and tucked her bare feet into the football jersey, one of the things left behind by her mom’s ex. It used to reach her ankles. Instead of a name, its vinyl lettering spelled out whiskey bent across her back. The vinyl was just beginning to peel, but soon she would begin waking to bits of numbers and letters in her sheets. For now, she leaned closer to the windshield and picked up the empty pistol case. Rubbing the wooly insides of the case back and forth along her nose, she smelled the sweet mixture of gunpowder and steel that would one day make her think of something like home. From behind, Pitch’s ear protectors made her mom look like Princess Leia, except instead of a frock, she was wearing cutoffs and knee-high moccasins. More than Leia, Reney realized, her mom looked like Christy, their old roommate’s daughter from back in Oklahoma. Christy always wore giant white headphones when she let Reney into her room to prowl through records and listen to her hickey stories. Years later, Reney would remember Christy—thick black hair permed to high heaven, in cutoffs and engineer boots—and she’d think of Van Halen. She’d think of ritual.
If Christy felt happy, she would say, “You have to hear this.” Then she’d lean down and let the headphones squeeze over Reney’s ears. As Christy moved the needle, Reney would sit cross-legged before the record player and wait . Just before they left for Texas, Christy had let her listen to the new Van Halen album. When the music slowed and the man said, “Reach down between my legs and ease the seat back,” Christy grinned and then took back the headphones and performed the ritual again: Move the needle. Close her eyes. Smile and rock from side to side. Give Reney the headphones. Move the needle. Take them back.
Then they moved. Now she had a horse and goofy Pitch but no record player and no Christy. She missed the smooth, cool feel of an album in her hand. Missed the way each cover deepened a mystery you could only glimpse before sliding the album out, tapping it from the paper protector, placing it beneath the needle, and waiting. Reney wished she could have taken the Van Halen album with the tired-looking baby angel, its fat fingers holding a cigarette, as mysterious on the inside as out. She hoped Christy really was going to marry Eddie Van Halen someday.
Reney hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. In her last memory, Christy slammed her door, telling Reney to bother someone else for a change. Maybe it was for the best. She’d said goodbye to her granny, and then her granny had died. She wondered what had become of Christy and, from time to time, if her cousin had been telling the truth about angels being in the room when her granny passed.
When the gun exploded, Reney jumped, hit her head on the rearview mirror. She tossed the gun case aside, slid out of the truck, and ran toward the shot. Black blood formed a halo around the snake’s muscular body. Reney broke a stick in two, then squatted over the snake, digging her toes into the cool pebbles for balance. Tiny flecks of color rose from the blood like gold. She pushed strings of hair from her eyes, used one stick to secure the snake’s writhing body and the other to smooth out the immaculate green-black diamonds that ran the length of its skin. The tail curled toward her, wrapped in curious black-and-white stripes just above the long, papery rattle. A new button every time they shed their skin, Pitch had said.
Pitch, who was now yelling, knife at his side.
Reney jumped, dropped her stick. She heard something shift inside her chest . When her mom’s ex had yelled at Reney, her mom had exploded, kicking him out of their lives on the spot. Reney’s eyes welled with tears. She looked at her mom, waiting.
“Get back in the truck,” her mom said. “You don’t have shoes on.”
“Step on that head, we’ll be cutting your foot off,” Pitch said and winked.
Reney took two quick steps backward, then picked her way to the truck’s dinging glow on her tiptoes. She slammed the truck door as hard as she could, imagining the gaping maw and hooked fangs closing in on her . She rolled up the windows to insulate herself with the blips and static of the radio. Then she tucked her feet and chin into the jersey and cried her knees wet.
When she heard a knock at the window, she looked up to see Pitch grinning, shaking the rattle. He held up ten fingers to show her how many skins the snake had shed. Reney wiped her eyes and gave him rock fingers in return. Her mom walked up and dropped the snakeskin in the back of the truck. Then she tapped a Marlboro Light out of her pack and lit it. No longer Princess Leia or Christy, she now had the ear protectors propped on her head.
Pitch shook the rattle at her mom, who punched him in the arm. She rolled her eyes at Reney and laughed. Then she leaned her head onto Pitch’s shoulder. She looked tired but settled. Reney could not have loved her more.
It would take years for Reney to understand the inclination to turn on the headlights and drive, looking for something wild you could possess. By then, she would understand the need to yell at a baby whose hand grasped the oven door. Though it would happen time and again, she would never understand the unbearable burn of her embarrassment, how deeply hurt feelings could run. She never could get a feel for what would disappear (one letter in ghost, two in isthmus) and what wouldn’t: the strange ache for the tendrilled dirt roads she’d come to call home. No matter. She would think, loosed from her own anchors, she was free.
Kelli Jo Ford’s novel-in-stories Crooked Hallelujah was longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, the Story Prize, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. She teaches writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.