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Authors: Sandra Scofield

Walking Dunes

BOOK: Walking Dunes
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Walking Dunes

A Novel

Sandra Scofield

New York

For Oleta and Evelyn
,

then and now

With thanks to Bill Danley

for his generous spirit

and fantastic memory

1.

It was an afternoon in late August, when people who could stay indoors did so, while others sought shade along the edges of buildings or other structures where they were obligated to be. The sun this time of year seemed to have bled its yellow, to have drained the West Texas sky and spilled almost without boundary onto the scruffy ochre plains. People dreaded the wind that came up hot and gritty. It obscured the last pale patches of sky. In August, color was forgotten. There was no blue, no green, no true yellow. Sand was a color, heat was a color.

A man was leaning against the side of a pickup bed, one foot propped against the wheel. He wore jeans, a blue plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves, wine-red ropers, and a bleached, once-black cowboy hat with a curled front brim. His visible flesh—hands, face, lower arms, the back of his neck—was burned a tan the hue of a dirty bruise. Anyone would know him for a roughneck. He was thirty-eight, slim-limbed, with a beer drinker's sloppy belly. He spat in the dust and packed a plug of tobacco under his lip, staring out over the mesquite in the direction of a pump jack. With his left hand he held a .22 rifle, propping the butt against his raised thigh.

Behind the man and his truck, thirty feet away, lay a dry stock pond, gouged out of caliche, four to four and a half feet deep in the center. It was about the size of the man's bedroom on North Buckhorn back in Basin. Off-center, toward the lip opposite the side of the pit where the man stood, a trickle of water came from below ground and darkened the rock for a few feet, then dried. In the spring, if it rained, the pit became again a “pond,” but now it was no more than another scar on the face of an ugly landscape.

At the apex of a triangle, its base the line from man to pit, a girl sixteen years old sat on the ground cleaning rabbits the man had shot. She was turned away from him. Several times she shielded her eyes and stared out toward the pump jack. Once she did this at the same moment as the man, who was her father. Then she went back to her bloody work. She was making two piles. One, on a rectangle of torn plastic sheeting, was of cottontails, which they would take home to eat. The other was of jack rabbits. Some of the jack rabbits were whole, merely tossed aside, of no use past sport, but there were a few that, shaken, spilled bladder and bowels onto the sand. The girl skinned and gutted the cottontails, working carefully.

She wore clothes much like her father's, except that her boots were brown, and she was hatless. The sun glinted off her pale hair, like off metal, and washed out the features of her face. The man, staring past her, saw a long stripey patch of blue wavering in the distance. Glimpsing a couple of rabbits in the brush, he lifted his rifle and shot several times, barely to his daughter's left. One rabbit leaped away. He yelled at her to look for the other one. “You fetch it!” he called. He held his arm straight out.

The girl rose obediently, dropping the knife but not bothering to wipe her hands and arms. The front of her shirt and her pants were splattered. When she was on her way, he took a burlap sack from the pickup bed and went over to the place where she had been cleaning the rabbits. He put the cottontails in the sack, loaded them in the truck, placed his rifle in the rack in the cab, and wiped his hands on a rag from the floor. Only then did he look up, watching for the girl's return.

She was walking quickly now. She seemed to be headed toward the blue shimmering mirage, toward the horizon, which was far away. At first she carried the jack rabbit by its long ears, so that it dragged and bumped along the ground. When it caught in brush, she jerked it free; shortly, she pulled it up and draped it over her arm.

Her father yelled her name, Sissy. Wind was gusting, and as he yelled again, perhaps half a dozen times, his mouth was lined with dust, and his voice broke in hoarseness against the fierce wind. He coughed and spat furiously. The girl strode on, towards the north, beginning to look small. She was a small girl, about ninety-five pounds on a delicate frame. He grabbed his gun from the rack and fired it, not quite up but not really in her direction, either. She might not even have noticed, her pace was so steady and unchanged. She began to veer toward the east, perhaps spying the turnoff of a lease road where the walk would be easier. Her father spat again, then turned and fired straight into the pit, at the wet spot, spraying splinters of rock and clumps of dirt. He racked the gun and scrambled into the truck, pulling away fast in a cloud of dust. The horizon was smudged out by the rising storm. He thought urgently of a beer, a cigarette, his head and hands under a tap running cold water. He drove east, back toward Basin, away from the girl.

2.

In town, the air was a dirty yellow, and the wind threw sand against the houses. David Puckett caught himself grinding his teeth. He was anxious to get away. It was Sunday, late afternoon, and he would be driving to Fort Stockton, a few hours away, as soon as he could leave. For one more week, he would be on his own, and then the school year would start again. Though he had only been home three days this trip, he had the sense of having needed to fill time. Boring and lonely as his work was in Fort Stockton, it was
his
, and at eighteen he had felt, for the first time, really, the dignity of unassailed privacy.

He was just finishing a chess game with his father, Saul Stolboff. Or the game was finishing him. At first, as always, David had agonized over each move, though he sometimes found himself forgetting the pieces, thinking only of his father across the kitchen table, waiting to pounce. Now he simply could not maintain attention; the sound of blowing sand was more compelling than the game. Then David noticed the particular tension in his father's arm before checkmate, before he actually saw the move itself. His father took great pleasure in these games, and the best part for him, David was certain, was yet to come.

The analysis.

“By God!” David said as his father crowed his win. He thought if he could pretend to be excited, to be impressed, he could carry the next few moments, then eat the meal his mother was preparing behind his back at the stove; he could maintain his patience, and
be gone
. There was no real reason to quarrel with his father, and there was no winning if he did. The purpose of quarrels, for Saul, never seemed to be to settle anything anyway; it always had to do with stirring things up. Anything could provoke him; he seemed always poised on the cusp of a tirade.

Almost immediately David realized he had sounded not impressed but surprised, an open invitation to a lecture. “Good game, Pop,” he added weakly.

Saul leaned forward on his elbows. “You were a fast kid, back when you were first learning chess, son,” he said, almost amiably. Teaching David chess had been Saul's first order of business when he returned to the family after his last long separation. David was then thirteen. David had felt singled out, special, madly eager to learn. Now David knew that behind this seemingly affectionate allusion would be something savage. His chest ached, waiting.

His father jabbed his finger in the air. “You've got a good memory for the moves, and if you concentrated, you could visualize—”

“What's for supper, Mom?” David asked, leaning back in his chair, tipping the legs, and stretching his arms over his head.

His mother turned at the stove to give him a smile. “I'm frying potatoes and onions, Davy,” she said. “And sliced tomatoes—”

“Goddam!” Saul shouted. “Can anybody finish a SENTENCE around here?”

Marge turned back to her cooking. David let his chair down gingerly.

“You confuse tactics and strategy, son,” Saul said across the board, as if David had just seated himself in readiness for a lesson. “Sure it's tactical to hit fast and hard, but, you don't have a strategy, you make a fool of yourself; you've got to know what's got value, and where you want to be, not just now, but across the board, moves ahead. You've got to know what you're willing to sacrifice.”

“Like tennis,” David said, unable to keep a tinge of longing out of his voice. He would much rather be outside, hitting balls, but of course you couldn't do that in this wind.

“Yes, like tennis!” his father said. “All the more reason for you to THINK.”

“It's just a game, Pop,” David said meekly.

“You missed it, sonny, back here—” Saul rearranged the pieces, positioning his own rook and queen, then David's, a few moves back. “Here's how it could have gone.”

The whine of the wind made David's skin crawl. Inside the house, he felt trapped, but really, he liked driving in a storm. It was like driving into the sea. Once, in Lubbock—he and his father had gone to the mills there to buy fabric seconds—a terrible dust storm moved in like a bank of water. They could see it coming up the street, blocking the light, blacking out the buildings and the streetlamps. As it reached them, it was like being blotted out, like disappearing, and he had been very excited, not scared at all. He had known to cover his eyes and wait.

Saul shifted the pieces around, now intent and superior. “If you'd have disposed of the check here—See this?” David followed the movement of his father's hand, aware of the dark curls of hair on his arm, the stringiness of the tendons from his wrist down into the fingers.
He's so hard on me
, he thought, unable to think why. Why all the lectures? Why all the criticism? Why couldn't he just let me
be
?

Why did David seem always to disappoint him?

“Black couldn't have stopped the passed pawn from queening. You'd have been a whole rook ahead.”

Suddenly David saw what his father meant. The slightest hint of the possible move had actually flitted across his consciousness back then, but he had dismissed it as simple. He had been looking for something trickier. Had he overestimated the queen? Underestimated the pawn? Or had he simply not paid attention, as his father accused him all the time?

“In the proper position,” Saul went on, full of himself now, “the queen has many ways of queening the pawn.”

“Lucky pawn,” David said bitterly.

“Is it so bad, losing?” Saul said.

“Is it so great, winning?”

They glared at one another.

“Five minutes,” Marge announced. David realized she had been standing there, shuffling one foot back and forth, for the whole time Saul was lecturing.

“I'm starved!” David said gratefully.

A mask of anger came and went on Saul's face, something considered and rejected, and he said, “Time for a drink, then, eh, Ma?”

“One,” Marge said. The phone rang.

Saul swept the pieces into the cardboard box he kept them in. Marge looked toward the phone on the wall over by the arch into the living room. “I'll get it in my room,” David said. His father had had a fit when David put that extension in. He made David pay two dollars a month for it.

“Oh good, you're not gone yet,” Glee Hewett said when he answered.

“I'm eating, I can't talk,” David told his girlfriend. He hated for her to call the house. Sometimes her sly, whimpering attempts to sound sexy did have an effect on him, but he could not bear the thought of his father commenting on her breathy little voice. “You know I don't like for you to call.”


You
weren't going to call
me.

“I talked to you last night.”

“Talked, Davy, just
talked
,” Glee fussed. “I
miss
you.”

David had worked on his mother's shift at the hospital, where she was charge nurse for the psychiatric ward at night.

BOOK: Walking Dunes
9.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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