When the health of your land is beyond your control

An excerpt from Rebecca Clarren’s new novel explores the effects of fossil fuel development on a Western ranch.

Ray takes a powdered donut from the bag and shoves it into his mouth. The fact that there are still things in this country so good and perfect that cost 50 cents is a goddamn miracle. Spring has spread itself throughout the valley and the sagebrush smells strong. The mud makes more work and makes all of it more a mess, but that seems right for a world set on making itself brand-new. Up top on the mesa, the rivers will be breaking open; the aspen will be green.

 

He pushes open the Dunbars’ door without knocking: It’s gotten to be like that between them. In two months, he’ll be a deputy again, which is good, it’s something his family can depend on; it’s something he can do well again if he can keep himself straight. But he will miss the wind outside, and the heat of the cows in the morning and the feeling he gets from being around Jackie and Susan.

Jackie’s at the kitchen table, a thick medical book in front of her; she hardly looks up when he comes in.

“I didn’t know what you gals liked, so I got one of everything.” Ray clears his throat and sets the white paper bag near her book.

“Thought I’d clear out that dead skunk in the pipe first thing. And I want to prep handline today. Sue ready to get to it?”

“She’s mad at me.” Jackie shuts the book and taps her finger against it. “Ray, can I ask your opinion about something?”

Ray shifts his feet. He always feels a little nervous around Jackie, like every day he has to prove himself over again. That someone as smart as Jackie Dunbar has expectations for him is not unflattering — it makes him want to rise to all occasions, to be better than he is — but on the edge of that is a deep fear that he doesn’t have what it takes. It’s easier with Sue.

“Shoot,” he says.

“Do you think life just happens to a person? I mean, don’t you think it’s possible to improve your life?”

“I think it’s good to try. It’s good to help other people out. But some days the wind blows the right way. Some days it doesn’t.”

“Sure, but you think we have the capacity to change, right? I mean, isn’t that inherent to human nature?”

“I don’t know, Jackie.” He counts his dead silently to himself. Marcus Wilson. The Iraqi kid driving toward the checkpoint. The woman with the bag of groceries. The little girl on the wrong side of a tank.

Ray takes another powdered donut from the bag and shoves it into his mouth. He chews for a long time, gets some water from the sink. What he believes isn’t something he knows how to explain, especially not to someone who has never been married or gone to war. He doesn’t know how to say that getting older is about setting down the hope that everything works out if you just try hard enough.

“You ever read your horoscope?” he says, finally.

“You don’t believe in that stuff.”

“I read it in the paper sometimes; honestly, I read it a lot.”

“You have to know some stoned kid fresh out of journalism school writes those.”

“I never thought about who writes them.” Ray shrugs, the color rising in his face. “Don’t you ever want to feel like you’re not in charge of everything?”

Jackie stares at him for a second before her face softens.

“All the time.”

She smiles and Ray has the feeling that he’s passed some sort of test and he nods, ready at last to get outside, when Susan runs into the kitchen, her hair flying, her cheeks red like they’ve been slapped. “The creek is bubbling.” Susan’s words are full of air, as she gasps for breath.

Ray and Jackie look at each other.

“Doesn’t the creek bubble sometimes in the spring?” Ray asks Jackie. “From the melt?”

“It’s not the melt,” says Susan. “There were dead frogs. And dead fish swirling in the eddy. Ray, you’ve got to come. Please, I know something is wrong.”

“Don’t leave me out of this,” says Jackie. “I’m coming too.”

When they get to the creek, the bubbles don’t stop coming. Just as Sue said, there’s a dead frog with a balloon belly, white, like the end of a fingernail. The creek has never done this, not since Ray can remember. Both Sue and Jackie stand at the bank, silent, alone in their thoughts.

“I’ll be right back,” he says and jumps in the truck.

He returns with a two-liter Diet Coke bottle he’d fished out of the recycling. He cuts the top third off the bottle and discards the rest. He wades into the creek with the homemade funnel and some matches. With the wide part of the funnel on the water, he lights a match and holds it at the mouth of the bottle. The flame shoots straight up. Ray’s hands start to shake. He swears. He starts to sweat, his forehead creased and shiny. He feels like he is drowning though he’s only thigh-deep. Then, somehow, he manages to light another match. This one flares up past his head. As quick as it lights, it dies.

Illustration by Sarah Gilman

LATER THAT DAY, after they have left messages for the EPA and the DNR and the Fish and Wildlife people and the county commissioners, after Susan can’t wait another minute for someone to call them back, she walks the ditch. The midday sun is high in the sky and heavy with heat. Susan finds that the noise in her brain is quiet. For the first time in weeks, her muscles go soft. The train is in the yard. She passes rusted barrels and screens and irrigation wheels and truck wheels and dented pipes, all the old equipment piled up for parts. She crosses the upper field, through the gate onto Johnson’s, until she finds what she came for.

Behind a string of orange and yellow flags that rope off a sump is a row of well heads and a couple tanks the size of outhouses. A former section of alfalfa, it’s been scraped to dirt as if with a giant spatula. The green water has an oil-slick shine. The wells hiss and clang. The windless day gives no relief.

In front of the Army-beige tanks is a sign. She reads it twice. Something hollow inside her fills with air. An old feeling, one she used to listen to. She needs a pen. Real reporters always carry a pen.  

“What’s doin’, Sue?”

She spins to see Ray walking toward her, wind-burned and brown. In the weeks since he’s been working cattle, his face has lost its puffiness, his hair has grown out; he looks less like a deputy, more like the boy he’d been. She waves, her hand is spastic. She is too excited, too glad to see him. She pins her arms to her sides.

“I was seeding alfalfa in the upper field and saw you leave the gate open; you all right?” He’s been tracking her. Worried she’s fragile as a leaf.

“I had to see all this.” She nods at the mess of well heads.

“Place is the same, you know,” he says, nodding beyond the well pad at Grass Mesa and the rough-cut mountains. From the fence line to the hills had been Stark land for all their growing up. “Look past all that and it’s still real pretty.”

Unthinking, she touches the wool of his work shirt and they stand there hinged to one another, quiet in their own lost thoughts.

Where does one story end and another start? Ray’s dad sold this field to Johnson, the day after Ray’s grandpa died, without asking Ray his opinion in the matter. Ray, out to spite his pacifist father, joined the Guard the next week. And then Johnson leased the mineral rights, and now 12 wells puncture the fields where Ray once rode horses into the wind.

Now there is a sign that Susan can’t stop reading.

“You have any pen and paper?”

Ray digs a pencil and a receipt out of his jacket.

Her handwriting is bad. Shaky. She keeps writing.

Danger! Extremely Flammable. Long term repeated exposure may cause cancer, blood and nervous system damage. Contains benzene. Overexposure may cause eye, skin, or respiratory irritation or damage, and may cause headaches, dizziness, or other adverse nervous system effects or damage, including death.

“My arms are burning.” Her T-shirt is thin. Her skin pale. “Ray, are your arms burning?”

INSIDE THE HOUSE, she heads straight for the bathroom.  

Including death. All the people in town who’ve died from cancer: Shorty’s sister Trish who worked at Why Not Hair, Pastor Charlie, Millie Ramirez, Lydia Allen’s mama, and then her daddy three months later, Kim Mobaldi, Sharon Haire, Liz Amos, Uncle Ellis, Dad.

The water is warm and she stands in the shower for a long time. Dad needed help with his bath at the end. His skin sagged. It was ashy and dry, like the skin of an old person. Make it stop, Susie honey. Give me all of them pills. He had said this as she drew the curtain around the tub. Needing help was not in his genetic code.

Dad, you’ve got a fever. You’re just loopy from the pain. You don’t mean that.

Please.

There are so many things she would do different in life, but that part with him at the end — someone else would’ve done better. The water pours over her face, her arms. She stares at the showerhead and suddenly it strikes her: this is creek water. The tanks aren’t at all far from the creek. Her skin starts to itch. She looks for bubbles but the flow’s too strong. She shuts the shower off, steps out with shampoo still in her hair. She scratches until red welts form across her arms, her belly, her thighs. The tile floor is not cold enough to calm her down. 

Reprinted from Kickdown: A Novel by Rebecca Clarren by permission of Arcade Publishing, an Imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Rebecca Clarren has been writing about the rural West for 20 years in High Country News, The Nation, Mother Jones and Salon.com. Kickdown, her first novel, was shortlisted for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. She lives in Portland, Oregon.