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Jan Meissner

The Mud Field


Where we lived, "Where to tonight?" didn’t have many answers. Home was a mud field, an oil camp where derricks were trees and where the miles between low wooden houses meant talk to your own self for someone to talk to.

Long summer days when her husband was working a back-to-back shift on the rigs and the daughter she called in for lunch had strayed too far on one of her mystery forays to answer, Mother said she tried not to feel more alone than she actually was but she wasn’t entirely successful.

That’s because an uneasy feeling that Eugene and I weren’t still out there, somewhere, wondering where she was and how she was doing without us washed over my mother at midday and made her lose sight of how close to her loved ones in spirit a woman can be when she isn’t in body.

Not that we ever went far or did much that she couldn’t sit back in a swing on the porch and imagine us doing, but no other sound than the scuff of her own bare feet on the pale green linoleum tiles of a kitchen she knew every inch of, and no other telephone call than the one she expected, and no other knock at her door than a knock by the hand of a stranger who wanted to know if she knew where the crossroad to Houston, or Juárez, or Galveston Bay was, meant some days, in spite of that deep inner well of contentment and strength she had always depended upon, she exchanged compos mentis for something a little bit too close to non compos mentis for comfort.

Such a long time waiting for someone to show up and ask how you were either sharpened your senses or dulled them. Hot afternoons, when the wind had died down and the rustle of heat in the fields and the circle of hawks on a high distant current of air set her nerves at an edge that compelled her to do things she’d never have thought herself capable of, Mother said no one could blame her for offering a glass of iced tea and a comfortable chair in the shade and her whole life story, if only that stranger she offered them to would agree to put off his arrival in Houston, or Juárez, or Galveston Bay, and sit back in that chair in the shade and relax and say, "Yes," to a little more ice in his tea as he listened and not only nodded but urged her to stop being cautious and come on and get to the good part.

Even there, in that dry dusty landscape of umber and ochre and rust-colored earth, there was always a good part——minor pleasures, where we lived, being equal in value to much greater pleasures those people in places we’d only imagined what life might be like in were most likely blessed with.

Mother said a good-natured husband back home from the wells with a smile on his face and a daughter with branches of sage and mesquite she has picked up and piled in a red metal wagon and dragged with the help of a small spotted dog to the grill of a barbecue pit that her family has gathered together around making small talk were pleasures a woman would have to be some kind of natural fool to call minor, but daughters don't always show up with their wagons and dogs on the dot, and a smile wasn’t always what Eugene came back from the wells with.

Heat above a hundred, for days on end with no break, caused a low-grade feverish feeling that made even one of the few grassy yards that he knew still survived in the midst of that umber and ochre he drove through seem more like some distant mirage than a place where a willow cast long purple shadows at dusk and a red-checkered cloth raising up on the first gentle breeze of the evening meant dinner was only an hour away and a woman named Leda was already starting to look toward the long dusty road he was on for some sign that the wait she’d endured was about to be over.

How highly she was able to think of the people she loved made my mother attractive to a man worn down to a nub of his original self——Eugene home from the derricks with crude oil and sweat and the lack of success all over his body and soul causing Mother to pull in her cinch belt and ice the tequila and cut off the end of a hand-rolled cigar that could only have come from a truck by the side of the road with its lights turned off and its back doors open as a signal that inside its high wooden hand-painted sides there were hard-to-get items from over the border at prices so cut-rate that even a woman with limited funds could afford them, so some evenings Eugene would ask how she managed on such a tight budget and some evenings Mother would tell him an angel whose job was to land in the yard and deliver relief to our pared-down existence had brought them, but most evenings Eugene just leaned toward the sulphurous fumes of the match she held out in the palm of her hand and extinguished the flame with the smoke he’d drawn into his lungs while avoiding the question of how she was able to manage on such a tight budget as well as the question of whether or not there could ever be anything even remotely resembling a creature with wings or a gift that came gratis.

Deep abiding faith mixed with no faith at all meant my father believed we could pray ourselves into abundance while Mother believed that a hand-rolled cigar and a bottle of aged Heradura tequila made up for the fact that she’d noticed how often it turned out we couldn’t——"God bless this food and this house," being his way of saying those powers he’d never been able to fathom the vagaries of played some part in how often a prime cut of marbleized beef manifested itself at our barbecue table and, "How about another cigar," being her way of saying she didn’t much care if they did or they didn’t as long as the man who believed that they did kept his hand on her knee while he tried to coerce them.

At a time in his life when the charm that a Nogales psychic had sold him seemed not to be working its magic as well as it once had——despite being tied to a piece of the cross that a preacher from Guadalajara had done such a good job of selling that Eugene had given him two pesos more than he’d asked for——Mother said they might need a rest from how often he reached down inside of his front bluejean pocket and touched them——the force of that alchemic mix between wood chip and charm keeping not only forces of darkness at bay, in the mind of my father, but also encouraging large chunks of manna to fall in the lap of a family he maintained he wanted to do more than merely provide for.

Whatever raised Eugene’s spirits and helped him get out of that black-and-blue mood he had recently been in was manna enough, Mother said, and it needn’t come only from heavenly sources or be only sirloin——flank being also a succulent cut if you pounded it right, and the wood smoke you roasted it over was fallen mesquite mixed with branches of sage, and the barbecue sauce that you slathered it with had been simmered with all the right spices for upwards of twenty-four hours, so you were the one who determined how tender or tough that meat was when you took off your apron and served it on one of those red clay-fired platters you used when your aim was to make flank seem not only tender but festive.

The higher powers were too far away to be more than just partially real to a woman who felt she could reach out and touch everything that she wanted, but, dark summer nights, when the porch lights were off, and a breeze from the coast brushed the back of her neck in a way that seemed more sacrilegious than holy, Mother would sometimes sing hymns in a slow acappella intended to make God seem nearly as real as the man by her side, and they might have, if only that man hadn’t leaned close and whispered, "Don’t stop," at that moment her voice dropped an octave and hung in the darkness between them the same way the smell of cigar smoke and magnolia bushes the heat wave had not yet killed off due to how many buckets of water she’d poured on their roots did.

The line between profane and sacred was not always clear in my family. Stretched out in a Mexican hammock with nothing but love and abundance around him, Eugene would tell her how grateful he was for the things she could do with her voice without backup and Mother would tell him a long lanky roughneck with hair in his eyes and a frog in his throat asking, "Leda, can you sing that again," was as much of a thank you as someone as happy as she was to sit there and watch him blow smoke rings that drifted apart before reaching the fields that lay outside that hurricane fence he had just closed the gate on was willing to ask for.

Wrinkled, leathered and tanned from a long string of back-to-back shifts on the rigs, oil field workers had disks in their spines that were bad and a place somewhere on their skin that a doctor, if a doctor had seen it, would have sliced off, right off the bat, not to lose any time before it couldn’t be stopped and one more fair-skinned rigger succumbed to a climate he’d never been meant to exist in——low melanin making him burn much more quickly than men who were born to find shade in a place where there wasn’t that much shade to speak of to start with.

Shade, if you worked on the wells, was the brim of a hat or the roof of a toolshed you rested against for a five-minute smoke break your foreman might ask you to cut by a minute or two, so a smoke wasn’t really a smoke, and a break wasn’t really a break if a gusher came in or a well needed capping.

Eugene said the butt of a barely-smoked cigarette stored in his pocket for later, a thermos of cold bitter coffee to wash down his salt pills, a notch or two in on his belt from the weight he had dropped and a bandanna soaked in a bucket of water mosquitoes had bred in were all part of how close to losing his own compos mentis a man who’d come down in the world was, down meaning Eugene no longer looked out from that slight elevation a pitcher of softballs in minor-league tournament circuits was given by virtue of how high the mound he had stood on to throw was.

Nights when the sole indication that life still existed outside of our yard was the just barely audible hum of a car shifting up into third on its way to some place he’d once known what it meant to succeed in, the glow that illumined his past made the citronella candles we burned to shed light on the present, as well as to fight off mosquitoes, seem too dim, by contrast, for Eugene to see by.

There, in the hush of a south Texas heat wave, with only cicadas for background and not enough memory to get through a story unless he embellished, Eugene leaned back with his boot ankles crossed and his belt unbuckled and his Ritter shirt open to let out the heat of digestion and went over one of those games he had once thrown a crowd-pleasing last-minute win for on sand near the town of Durango, but, this time, it turned out, that sand was a diamond of grass near the town of Sonora——close to the truth being one of those talents my father had nearly, but not quite entirely, perfected.

"Dust to dust and ashes to ashes," a spadeful of dirt thrown over what used to be the fine-tuned body of a softball pitcher with a circular style was an unhappy end to the story, he said, and if you knew my father, you knew that your job at that point was to ask him, "What story might that be, Eugene," so he could roll another smoke from a brown leather sack of tobacco and tell you that down along the coast and the Mexican border his name had been linked, if you followed the southwestern tournament circuit, with essence of softball so much so that everyone called him el Beisbol, and only the view from the high sweaty shoulders of fans had compared with the view from that mound they descended upon once he’d managed to pitch one more perfect no-hitter.

A good-looking boy with a swagger and a wet panatela at the corner of an innocent grin, Eugene had once been renowned, in a small-time border-town way, for the spin that he put on a round piece of cork wrapped in hide and for a last-minute swerve that made a batter take a swing at that place where no ball was but twenty-twenty vision and sense and experience told him there should be——the ineffable placing its hand on the hand of el Beisbol whenever a thin white space opened up that resembled a tunnel he just had to guide the ball in through the mouth of and stand back and watch as the orb it became passed one predestined inch from the tip of the bat of a batter who later said, "Damned if I know what just happened," but, neither, it turned out, did Eugene.

He said the tunnel that lay between pitcher and batter revealed itself more through the whim of some on-again-off-again power he couldn’t control or communicate with than through anything he did——practice and natural skill and the cold steady drip of adrenaline coupled with will and desire being no more than five out of six of the critical factors——but, nights when he knew who he was and how well he was doing by what people called him, the sound of those voices that hallowed his name bumped the number of critical factors from six up to seven.

Exhibition games, when life outside of the circle of light disappeared, were not magic, he said, but dark-haired girls with their eyes on the mound calling, "mi corazón," for the grace of his stance, and for how tightly that blue and white uniform fit, made it seem like they were. He said he could have gone on and he would have gone on but the signs that read Welcome. Bienvenido el Beisbol had caused him to overextend what he’d already overextended to such a degree that no doctor could do more than tell him those red-letter nights when he’d broken a record, or a heart, or a jaw, if somebody got in the way of a fastball, were over.

"Qué pasa, el Beisbol," instead of the usual "bravos," and, "vivas," cut deeper, he said, than the pain in his arm but a triumphant, "Vaya con Dios, el Beisbol," that came from the mouth of a batter who’d just rounded third on his way into home cut much deeper——this being always the point at which Mother would break in and say that Eugene wasn’t such a bad name to be called by on nights when a breeze had rolled in from the coastline and comfort and love weren’t such bad substitutions for money and glory. She said nothing was wrong with his life that a little hard work and a little more comfort and love couldn’t fix but it wasn’t that easy since comfort and love and a good piece of chicken-fried steak lifted out of the grease at that moment his truck had pulled up to the lawn of his own private Garden of Eden were not quite enough for a man as aware of the fact that his zenith was somewhere behind him as he was.

Nights, when a chain bound the necks of those guard dogs asleep on the porches of dark shuttered low haciendas and ranchstyles he drove by, Eugene said he felt it was he who was locked out and not, as my mother insisted, no more than a few dozen families locked in as a way of protecting themselves from that sense of foreboding the oncoming shadows of night tend to bring in a place where the porch lights are so far apart no one knows what might lie in between them.

You had to give in to the dark brooding side of your nature in order to work up a sense of foreboding when home was as quiet and peaceful as ours was but nights when Eugene felt the forces of gravity pulling him down to the bottomless pit that lay under that green grassy lawn that lay under his mud-covered bootheels, Mother tried to tell him those forces were there just to keep him from drifting away from the yard of a renthouse inside of a hurricane fence where a long line of runner beans looked more like flowering vines, and the moonlight made lovely what wasn’t, and someone said, "Yes," with a squeeze of their hand when you asked, "Did you notice that comet go by, hon?" She said he went a little farther than a man ought to go when he worries but Eugene said after the things he had seen on the streets of Juárez he believed he should worry a little bit more just to keep up with how fast things move in directions you have no control of whenever you start to relax and think maybe they’re not really moving——two-thousand hours of pitching a ball at an infinitesimal target he’d had to have more than just eyesight to aim at, much less to connect with, producing a hole in his life into which there was suddenly nothing to rush but a bunch of extremely bad habits.

Once he saw just how banished he’d been from the circle of light that surrounded those bordertown diamonds, Eugene said the low incandescence of Juárez cantinas was all he could find to illumine the rapidly descending darkness——too many worms at the bottom of too many bottles of Tomo tequila and too many reefers and too many cantina dancers with bright scarlet nails making dents in the small of his back meaning dusk to dawn crawls along cantina row brought a touch of that rapture he’d known when the mound he had stood on defied gravitational pull but the price of that second-rate rapture turned out to be not only moral but physical danger——chances he couldn’t stop taking in places where chance meant the odds were against him reducing that internal voice he had always depended upon to say, "Time to get out," to a just barely audible whisper.

When Mother asked, "What kind of danger was that, hon," he shifted his gaze from the stars in the sky to the hand that was pouring a little more aged Heradura tequila on top of the ice in a glass that was only half empty and then, with a sigh of what should have been full-blown contentment, chose one of a number of losses and dangers and dashed hopes that plagued him and shared it, at length, while a breeze from the coast moved the heat off his skin and the night fell in more of those long purple shadows around him.

You had to watch what you ate and take care where you ate it if cramps, and a hard rubber tube down the back of your throat, and a case of the shakes and the sweats on a narrow white cot in the critical ward of the charity clinic on Plaza Calinda were not what you wanted to find when you walked through the backstreets of Ciudad Juárez——good nights in towns like Juárez being sweet culminations of days when some goal had been reached so a real celebration was called for——but if ptomaine was just one more risk you were hell-bent on taking, and sober was something you couldn’t recall what it felt like to be, and your taste buds were fried, and the only real goal in your life was a worm on its back in a bottle of cut-rate mescal, and the ratio of weed that you mixed with your low-grade tobacco had risen so high that the worm seemed to roll at the slow motion rate that your mental capacities did, then Eugene knew all the right places to tell you to go in Juárez just as long as you had no aversion to dog in your carne tamales.

He said the daily proportion of canine to sirloin in back-street cantinas depended not only on your luck but also the luck of the man who was mixing a handful of masa and spices and cold white semi-solid lard with a tenderized fillet of greyhound you might once have laid down a sizable bet on——long-distance sprinters whose arthritic haunches no longer provided enough sprint to win at the track ending up in that carne tamale you peeled back the husk from and covered with red and green hot sauce some cowboy with serious appetite loss and a lingering fever had walked by and coughed on, if your luck and your timing were off, and they always were off when you ate in those places Eugene recommended in Ciudad Juárez.

The truth was, it wasn’t just ptomaine and early consumption that scared him. When a voice whispering, "Hush," and a hand he was just about to learn every crevice and fold of had pulled him inside of a bedroom he’d climbed up a trellis of overblown roses to get to, Eugene said the blade of a knife nestled down in a boot that belonged to some husband or father or uncle or brother who’d noticed a few of the branches that held up that trellis were broken meant death might be only the turn of a doorknob away but he didn’t know what else to do with his evenings.

It must have been wearing him down——the fatigue, and the cantina dancers unable to fill up that place where his heart should have been, and the forces that seemed to breathe sulfurous fumes down the back of his neck while they twisted the tear in his rotator cuff just to prove he had no way to stop them.

Mother said it might have been the hot smoky breath of a cantina dancer he felt on the back of his neck, or the low smell of brine on a breeze from the Sea of Cortez that had passed through a tropical heat wave, or gastro-intestinal fever from chilies borrachos gone mossy, but Eugene insisted his walks down those dark lonely streets after midnight were filled with a danger it took more than five of his highly trained senses to gauge the proximity of. He said he tried not to dwell on how dark it had grown, but the short little wick burning low at both ends of a candle that stood for the riotous life he’d been leading no longer illumined the path he was on, and he sometimes heard footsteps behind him on streets that appeared to be empty.

When she asked if he still felt the danger, he told her not nearly as much as he once had, but, some nights, a low-level rustle that sounded like somebody whispering made Eugene think one of those powers he’d never been able to fathom the vagaries of might have come back to finish the job it had started in Ciudad Juárez.

Mother said she heard it herself but she thought it was only a breeze from the coast playing games with the vines in our parched little garden. Or one of those clandestine gophers with strong vegetarian cravings that wanted a bite of our okra. Or rabbits escaping a pack of coyotes that hunger had drawn to the edge of our fenceline——dust storms and heat causing four-legged creatures to lie down and quietly starve unless someone showed kindness and mercy by throwing them bones with enough meat attached to make gnawing those bones worth the effort the coyotes went through to get them, so low snarling fights that divided the pack meant the question of whether to throw bones or not became harder to answer once Juárez with all of its dangers receded, and night disappeared into more night, and frogs and cicadas and whatever else had been rustling around in our garden rose over the growls of a coyote eating a gopher outside of that hole in the fence that it might have crawled in through, if not for a ropeline of pansies the drought hadn’t managed to kill yet, but would, later, which meant we would have to start over again with a ropeline of seedlings by bringing them water and shading their tiny green shoots from the sun while we fought off the forces of nature that seemed to hold growth so at bay in Placedo.

Jan Meissner was born in Texas and lives in New York City. Her short fiction has appeared in Story, Epoch, The Massachusetts Review, Fiction, Columbia, Joe Magazine, The Quarterly and The Texas Bound Anthology, which was published as part of the Dallas Art Museum’s Selected Shorts program. She has been at work on a novel for the past five years.

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