Authors: Rene Steinke
ALSO BY RENÃ STEINKE
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright Â© 2014 by RenÃ© Steinke
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The author gratefully acknowledges permission to reprint the excerpt from William Goyen,
The House of Breath
. Copyright Â© 1949, 1950 by William Goyen. TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press edition published 1999 by arrangement with the Doris Roberts and the Charles William Goyen Trust. All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Friendswood : a novel / RenÃ© Steinke.
1. FamiliesâTexasâFiction. I. Title.
PS3569.T37926F75 2014 2014012106
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For my son,
Something in the world links faces and leaves and rivers and woods and wind together and makes of them a string of medallions with all our faces on them, worn forever round our necks, kin.
The House of
One of those evenings, before they knew, Lee walked past the Clarks' ranch house, as sunlight shattered through the leaves overhead. The fan of a lawn sprinkler bowed down again in the green yard, and a few drops dotted her shoulder. Jess ran in front, dark hair splayed against the narrow back of her shirt, sneakers snapping against the concrete. Lee followed her around the bend, where the Bordens had planted an orange plastic Texas on a wooden stake right there in the garden among the marigolds. In the flat distance, another crop plane droned low in the sky, a silver spray trailing behind it, though nothing grew out where the refinery used to be.
Jess waited at the stop sign. She was twelve, and her teeth seemed too big for her delicate mouth, her arms extra long, as if they grew ahead of the rest of her skinny body. “It's okay, right?”
“We figured, yes,” said Lee. “But, listen, don't show off, just ride the horse like you've practiced.”
“I don't know why he worries. I'm a good riderâDad knows that.”
Jess took her hand, and Lee held some lost part of herself just returned. “Yeah,” said Lee. “But let's not push it.”
They turned the corner, and the sunset spread before them, two sparrows perched on a fence, radio jangling out from someone's window. In
one yard, a man stood holding a garden hose that shot at a row of hedges; his white T-shirt glowed phosphorescent in the dimness, as if he were trying hard not to disappear.
“Can we hurry it up?” said Jess. They walked over the footbridge, over the cold, steely noise of crickets. On their street, Jess let go of her hand and ran around to the back of the neighbor's house, where the horse was tied to the gate. Lee called after her, “I'll be out there in a minute.”
At home, Lee found Jack in the kitchen, smoking by the open window, squinting, face turned to the bright orange sun. They'd made up in bed that afternoon, but she was afraid, when he saw Jess on that horse, that he might get angry again. “I like that dress,” he said, eyeing her.
“It's not a dress, it's a skirt.”
“Whatever.” He smiled.
She went over and touched his forearm, kissed his sweaty, stubbled cheek. “You smell good.”
“It's a wonder what a bath will do.” He pulled his shirt away from his chest and fanned himself a little. “Hot though.” He sighed, tapped his ashes into the sink. “Let's go on outside then, I guess.”
With that limp he wore as a strut, Jack went to set up the lawn chairs in the backyard. She took off her shoes to feel her feet in the grass, and she looked out at Banes Field, scrub weeds and stooped trees. The old, defunct refinery still stood there, as if there might be some reward in the futility of it; the small plane flew low now above the flat warehouse and white cylinder oil tank. From here, she couldn't see the perimeters of Banes Field, only some of the other houses whose backyards ran along this edge. And though the whole block shared a nearness to the field, she could still pretend that she and Jack were the owners of it.
Jack fell into the chair beside hers, handed her a beer. His face was shiny and tired, wet blue ovals in the underarms of his shirt.
He winced, leaned back into the yawn of plastic chair. “I'm nervous.”
She tapped her ring against the glass of the bottle. “It'll be fine.”
From behind the slope, their daughter emerged on the black horse, loose shirttail blowing, and her silhouette melded to the animal's, a sober, elegant loping against the sky.
She slapped Jack's leg. “Will you look at that?”
He craned his head to see. Jess could ride well now, but she was taking it slow. The neighbor girl Rachel was out there guiding the reins before she stepped away, red hair swept up in the breeze. Jess, her body so small against the vast brown field, took the horse into a canter, circled back, and waved at them.
Lee took Jack's hand, rubbed her thumb over his calloused palm. She'd won him over again, but it was better not to gloat.
“Hey there!” Cal McHugh called over the low hedge that split his yard from theirs.
“Hey yourself!” Jack sat up and tilted his bottle in Cal's direction. Lee could see the citronella candles lit up on tall black stakes over the patio, where Lisa walked out, barefoot in a purple dress, carrying amber highballs.
The unkempt yard on the other side of Lee and Jack's was bound by a short wooden fence with hand-sized holes in it. Rachel's sisters ran out to the edge of the property in their nightgowns, screaming, “Jess!” One of them pulled a pink plastic wagon, jiggling with rocks. Another trailed a doll with electrified hair.
Farther away, two houses beyond, in the yard Lee couldn't quite see, a party started to gather at the Turners', laughing and shouting, dim music cartwheeling over in the dusk. The air was cool now, the sun fallen to that slant that nearly gilded the brown grass in the field. Jess took the horse into a gallop, turned, and disappeared behind the warehouse, then appeared and disappeared behind the tall metal poles that looked like pistons.
Lee glanced at Jack's face, the tense cords in his neck. “She'll be alright.”
She could see, next door, the McHughs watching Jess too, but casually. Cal lit a cigarette, opened the lid of the grill, and Lisa stood behind him, chatting at the back of his head.
Out in the field, Jess galloped in a shot from behind the warehouse, her small body leaning over the horse's strained neck. Lee was proud of how she'd learned to handle her stride and the reins. Jess patted the horse's neck, and it slowed down, turning, head gradually more heavy, somber, nodding yes to its pace.
Down the block at the Turners', over the party's murmur, a man started to sing loudly, “
All I'm taking is your time.”
Jess rode toward them, smiling. Her dark hair, unwashed and dull, fell awkwardly against her round, flushed face. She looked triumphant and exhausted, her torso slumped toward the huge saddle, the reins held close to her chest. She rode right up to the azaleas and bellflowers in the garden, bowed her head, and the McHughs applauded.
Later, Lee and Jack would wander over to the Turners' party, and Lee, a little drunk, would stroll into the field and look up at the moon's scribbled design. From where she stood in the vast dark, the stars pinning down the night, the long weeds up to her knees, she could hear Jack's balmy laughter.
It was an evening that would melt into the summer, calm, humid, and expansive. The air did not yet smell of dead lemons. The red and blue sores hadn't yet appeared on anyone's neck. The black snakes hadn't wriggled up from the ground. And she had no idea that this world was not without an end.