DADDY MADE A SOLDIER OUT OF ME
Spur, Texas, four hours northeast of Dallas on 1-20, was a rural town with a population of 1,196. Its newspaper was one page front and back and contained mostly obituaries.
That day, it informed the reader that Mrs. Tillman had had a heart attack while taking her nightly stroll around the square. A young wife had a stillborn baby. And a kid from the local high school, Ryan Fillmore, had choked on his own vomit at a kegger over at the nearby lake. The newspaper turned Jessie Pride’s fingers black as she looked down at his wrinkled photo. It was the same photo used in the church’s member directory. She sat on her front porch of her house. It was dusk, and the air was warm. She was homeschooled, which gave her the flexibility to help her father work the ranch, so she hadn’t known Ryan at all—but he was dead, and that was all that mattered to her at that moment.
Earlier that morning, she’d gone out into the fields with her shotgun for some target practice. She always went to this back acre when she needed to let off steam; the grass grew high and blew against her knees, glistening with morning dew, and overhead sky larks dipped and wheeled among the clouds. The house was a black speck in the distance.
She gripped the hand stock, pulling the butt of the gun firmly against the pocket of her shoulder. Her eye was aligned evenly with the sight of the shotgun, and though a clay pigeon burst into the sky, awaiting her fire, she couldn’t pull the trigger. She watched, still posed to shoot, as the pigeon made its arc through the air before hitting the ground with a thud. Jessie sighed, ran a hand through her red hair, and then sat down in the grass, too.
Her father Pete had been taking her out into these fields to shoot since as far back as she could remember. He’d taken her brother, Woody, also, but she hadn’t been around for that. They were both apparently natural marksmen. “It’s in your blood,” her father assured her. And when she shot her first aluminum can with a BB gun, he’d looked down at her and beamed. “That’s my girl!”
As she leaned back in the grass, Jessie thought about her mother’s horse.
“I need you to do something for me,” her father had said.
Jessie was thirteen. It had been nearly a decade since her mother, Emily, had woken up in the still-dark of morning while Jessie and Pete were still sound asleep, and hopped a Greyhound to only God knew where. She’d packed only a few belongings in an old suitcase, leaving most of her clothes and toiletries and sentimentalities behind—including her pinto mare, Señorita.
There was no way she could have taken the horse with her—wherever she went. But the abandonment only made her mother’s departure all the more surreal. She’d loved Señorita more than anything, had always loved horses, but she’d loved Señorita most of all.
Her dark eyes, cloudy with age, fell on Jessie. The late summer air was thick and heavy.
Jessie winced and turned to look at her father. “Can we blindfold her?”
“No time for that,” Pete replied. “Let’s just get this over with. You got the .38 caliber, right?”
“Remember, Jessie, right between the eyes.”
Her face twisted together. The shotgun dropped to her side. “Daddy, why can’t you do it?”
Pete didn’t respond, only tightened his grip on Señorita’s lead rope. Jessie watched his hand shake.
The silence deepened between them. They both knew why.
It was over quickly. The old mare’s head swung to the side, and then she collapsed to her knees before her back legs gave and her entire body toppled to the ground.
She was still.
“Thank you, Jessie.”
Six months later, as she stared down at Ryan Fillmore’s obituary in the newspaper, she couldn’t but think: Spur, Texas is a place where things die.
TOUGH GIRL IS WHAT I HAD TO BE
Summer had come that year with the sense that it had always been summer and always would be. As early as April, all of Spur was swallowed up in that faded, washed-out look particular to Texas summers. The sky was flat, and colorless, and seemed to be suffocating the entire town. The grass blades were brown and bent over exhausted in the heat. And the river that ran on the outskirts of town was as lifeless as a rattlesnake’s discarded skin. Nevertheless, you could still find families and rowdy teenagers wading in its waters and making cannonballs.
The same heaviness that hung in the air seemed to be in Jessie’s head, too. She kept getting headaches that wouldn’t go away no matter how much pain reliever she took. They had her feeling dazed, like she wasn’t all the way there. Noises got louder. Her sight would become blurry. It felt as if there was a terrible pressure hanging up above. It didn’t seem like a whole lot could be done about them, so when she felt one coming on, she retreated to the fields and went riding on her horse; it was the only thing that brought her a modicum of relief.
Every summer since she was young, Jessie left Spur for horse camp. It only lasted a month, and her absence irritated Pete, but, she enjoyed working as a counselor—teaching kids the ins and outs of riding, swimming in the lake during long afternoons, brushing down her horse at the end of the day. Another boy from Spur, Dan, also worked as a counselor, too. They didn’t socialize much during the school year, as he had his own set of friends at the local high school, but he was nice enough and she enjoyed going out for a ride with him, which usually resulted in a friendly race.
But he wasn’t what Jessie imagined when she pictured a ‘best friend.’
The first time Jessie saw her, she’d just been thrown from the back of her horse.
“Are you all right?” Jessie dropped her horse’s lead rope and hurried to the other girl’s side.
Laughing a little, she shrugged. “Yeah. It was my fault.” She stood up and then ran a hand along her horse’s withers. “My mind was elsewhere. She could sense it.”
“I’m Jessie. You must be new, I take it?”
“Yeah, I’m from Dallas. My name’s Emily.”
Jessie paused and smiled. “That was my mom’s name.”
Jessie didn’t think she was the kind of person who believed in signs; she and Pete were Easter/Christmas church-goers. And she knew rationally that ‘Emily’ was a common girl’s name. Still, she couldn’t help but see some glimmer of hope in this exchange.
For the rest of the month, she and Emily did everything together. There was no sound Jessie loved more than the thumping of their sneakers followed by the clomping of their horses’ hooves against the gravel road after returning from a long ride through the meadows and the hills.
The last night of camp before they would depart their separate ways, they climbed onto the roof of their cabin while the others slept and looked up at the stars.
“I’ve never had a best friend before” Jessie blurted. She’d always hoped Woody would come back and he’d be that for her, but she supposed he was too old and had no interest in hanging out with a kid. He was far away now.
Emily sighed. “Dallas won’t be any fun without you.”
“Please. You’ll probably forget about me the second you get back.” Jessie said this with a laugh—she wasn’t the melancholic type, but despite her best efforts, she couldn’t disguise the bitterness in her voice. Where Jessie was a loud-mouthed country girl, Emily had Southern debutante written all over her. She was clean and poised and gentle, but these were the things Jessie loved most about her.
“I’m going to miss you so much.”
She wasn’t sure why, but she was surprised and relived when Emily leaned in to hug her. The night air was hot and sticky, and Emily’s arms around her only intensified the heat, but Jessie didn’t care. Nothing had ever felt better.
Emily pulled away sooner than Jessie would’ve liked; she could’ve held her forever.
The Friday of Labor Day weekend, school let out early, so Jessie thought she’d surprise Dan in the parking lot. She and Emily had been talking on the phone and texting since camp ended, but she hadn’t heard from her in a few days. Reaching out to Dan seemed like the next best thing.
It’d been very hot that day, so hot in fact that that all the students had been told that they could wear shorts if they wanted to. As students flooded the parking lot, the air was filled with a festive, anxious feeling.
She saw the top of Dan’s blonde head first, his varsity jacket thrown casually over his shoulder. A wide smile on her face, Jessie waved frantically in his direction. He saw her and waved back. But then the crowd began to disperse and she saw Emily holding his hand. Emily faltered.
“We’re trying the whole long-distance thing.” Emily explained.
“I… didn’t even think y’all knew each other that well.” Jessie forced a smile.
“You kidding? I couldn’t get enough of Emily this summer.” Dan wound his arm around Emily’s waist and kissed her on the cheek.
“Where was I?” Jessie stared at Emily, waiting for an answer.
Dan shrugged. “We were just heading out for lunch. Wanna come?”
I don’t think there’s enough room in the backseat. Another time?” said Emily hastily.
The air was motionless, hot as an oven.
“Sure.” Jessie nodded slowly, understanding what Emily was really saying.
BUT DADDY LIKED WHISKY WITH HIS TEA
Jessie wasn’t entirely sure what was going through her head when she saw the pretty brown-haired boy standing outside the convenience store smoking a cigarette.
She didn’t know anything about him, didn’t know if he lived in Spur, if he was a nice person, if he liked Patsy Cline, held doors open for people, ate the right foods, or did well in school. She didn’t know if he respected his parents or treated animals well, or had big dreams like she did.
She only knew that he wanted him to notice her.
Pete was in the feed store across the street, so as casually as possible, she decided to walk by the pretty-looking boy. After that was done, she looked over her shoulder, and saw that he’d snuffed out his cigarette and disappeared into the Dollar General.
She looked down at herself, at her loose blue jeans and flannel shirt. She didn’t wear make-up and had no idea what to do with her frizzy red curls.
She didn’t want him. Why had she even bothered?
Peering through the window of the feed store, she saw that her dad was still chit-chatting with the owner, so she went to a nearby payphone and dialed the phone number she’d long ago memorized but had never dialed.
“Hello?” said the familiar voice on the other end of the line.
Jessie took a breath.
Another breath. Her mouth formed the shape of his name.
“Is this one of those perverted phone calls?”
“You ready to go, Jess?” Her father materialized at her side, a large sack of feed propped against his hip. “Help me load this in the truck.” He said, tugging on one of her braids playfully.
She smiled. Maybe she didn’t need Woody after all. She’d gone this long without him, and Pete wasn’t so bad on his good days. Still, she couldn’t shake this feeling—there was no name for it—she’d felt ever since her mother and Woody had left. She wondered why they got to be the ones to go away. She wondered why she had to be the one to stay.
They pulled into the driveway. The house was outlined in gold. She knew this house more intimately than anything else—had memorized the serpentine course of the vines on the arbor, the creak of the wooden swing her dad had her build when she was a kid, had watched the sun set a thousand times in a smear of rose and yellow behind the house and beyond the weathered hills. This was where she’d grown up. She could find her way through the narrow hallways without even opening an eye—and she had during various make-believe, childhood games. But as she climbed out of the passenger seat, listening to Pete unload the back of the truck, their house seemed to her more like a memory; it was right there in front of her, but it no longer felt like hers.
DADDY MADE ME FIGHT, IT WASN'T ALWAYS RIGHT
According to Tim Jacobson in Heritage of the South,
the South possesses an identity separate from the rest of the country: “…they [Southerners] are conscious of another loyalty too, one that transcends the usual ties of national patriotism and state pride. It is a loyalty to a place where habits are strong and memories are long. If those memories could speak, they would tell stories of a region powerfully shaped by its history and determined to pass it on to future generations.”
The South is nostalgic for a pastime in which the world was navigated through clear-cut binaries and oppositions regarding race and class and gender. Not only did this make life simple and easy to understand, you also knew where you stood in the overall social hierarchy. Southerners share together in this meditation on the past, and this solidarity is only strengthened by outside disapproval, as though a confirmation of what the South stands for. “Thousands of Northerners and foreigners have migrated to it... but Southerners they will not become. For this is still a place where you must have either been born or have ‘people’ there, to feel it is your native ground.” However, the old way of life to which the South cleaves is rooted in the blithe ignorance of the complexity of the human condition—all in the name of ‘simplicity’ and ‘tradition.’
As a result, Texas, her home, felt like a cage. And since this was all she’d ever known for as long as she could remember, she was hopelessly resigned to the belief that things would invariably continue on in this way.
At times she longed to conform to the retrograde ideals proposed by Southern living: to go to tailgating parties; to belong to a sorority; to have a football-playing boyfriend (or just a boyfriend period and all the heteronormative predictability that follows); to wear one of those hideous mums for Homecoming; and in a more far-off future, she’d fantasize about living happily ever after with a rugged Clint Eastwood archetype in the country somewhere, an image of marriage that was vague and primarily defined by home décor and having dinner on the table at a certain hour. But at night, when she stared out at the red lights of the radio towers visible outside her bedroom window, beyond the vast acreage, the of the barn and the bordering treetops, those fantasies she’d manufactured felt as though they weren’t even hers, and the existential dread she always felt seemed more real than anything else.
MY DADDY WARNED ME ABOUT MEN LIKE YOU
What Jessie loved most about barrel racing was what she suspected most people loved about it: the simplicity. Unlike English saddle sports, which were closely judged on a variety of stylistic and technical factors, Western barrel racing cut through the bullshit. All that matters is the clock, and nothing else.
There was something about the sport that somehow managed to move simultaneously at lightning-speed and slow-motion. Crossing the start line, circling the first barrel, sitting deeply in the saddle, pressing her legs closely against the horse’s sides, galloping back down the center of the arena, the completion of a perfect cloverleaf pattern—all of these things filled Jessie with both a rush of adrenaline and a surprising calm.
She had the talent to compete at the professional level—Pete told her this often in his warm, fatherly way. But when it came time for her to compete in the All-American Youth Barrel Race, she didn’t make it far along.
“I can’t do this by myself,” her father would tell her, referring to the cattle ranch.
Mornings began with cutting, raking and baling hay, followed by perimeter walks along the property line to make sure the wiring and fencing was intact. The cattle herd had to be routinely inspected for any necessary culling, as well as birthing and weaning calves during certain seasons. The stock horses and dogs also had to be inspected too for good health—they didn’t have the finances to innovate their ranching practices with newer technology. Jessie had grown up on a farm, had always loved the routine of this way of life. And even though she knew her aging father needed her help, and even though she loved working outdoors and the openness of the wide fields and big sky—the chores never stopped.
When the time came for competition, she hadn’t trained enough and wasn’t in the proper physical shape to race against her peers. When she lost, she found herself wishing Woody had been there.
Still, she found solace in her daily routine, and she continued to race at local rodeos. But when the ranch became too much and she needed something slower than racing, she retreated to a bar in Dickens to sing.
It wasn’t anything fancy. Far from it. But they did open mics and even though Jessie harbored no delusions of stardom, it was one of the few things that brought her relief and made her feel less alone.
She almost didn’t recognize him when he caught her at the end of her set; she’d sung an acoustic version of Carole King’s “So Far Away.”
He was practically a stranger to her, but wrapping her arms around him and pressing her face into the collar of his shirt felt like the most natural thing in the world. The best part was that it felt like she was rediscovering someone she’d known her whole life, even though he’d been more or less estranged from her for most of that time. It should’ve been awkward. It should’ve been stilted and uncomfortable. But she’d never felt anything so effortless. They spent the whole night talking. When dawn broke in a pink haze across the sky, Jessie felt heartbroken, knowing that Woody wasn’t the type to stick around. So, his next words surprised her.
“How’d you like to come with me back to Elias?”
There was only one answer. There’d only ever been one answer.
She left a letter for Pete on his nightstand. She hated to leave things like that; it felt cowardly. But she knew that if she told him in person that he’d never let her go.