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Authors: Karen Halvorsen Schreck

Broken Ground

BOOK: Broken Ground
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For Randi Ravitts Woodworth and Mark Woodworth

Now farming became industry, and the owners followed Rome, although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos. They live on rice and beans, the business men said. They don't need much. They couldn't know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny—deport them.

—
John Steinbeck,
The Grapes of Wrath

You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane, All they will call you will be “deportees.”

—Woody Guthrie, “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”

PART I
March 1934–August 1934
ONE

C
harlie wakes me as he rises, mattress springs creaking beneath his long limbs. This early in the morning, with the sun yet to come up, shadows cloak our small bedroom. But I can make out the sleepy shape of him sitting on the edge of the bed. I can smell his warm skin. Ivory soap and, beneath that, the gritty hint of Lava. Charlie starts with a cake of Lava when he returns from the rig each night—all but sandpapers himself clean—then finishes with Ivory because he knows I like that scent better. Only when he's shed oil, grease, and dirt like a second skin does he draw me into his arms. “Mrs. Warren,” he says then, because he still can't believe our good fortune. “Mr. Warren,” I say back, because I can't believe it, either. Here we are, just three months married, with an oil camp tent house to call our own, complete with kitchen, bedroom, front room, and a privy out back. There's hardship all around us, out there in the big beyond, and close at hand, too. Our own pantry with its slim pickings, our well-worn clothes and hand-me-down furniture—this very creaky mattress, which was Charlie's aunt's before it became ours—are testaments to the times taking their toll. But two months before our wedding, Charlie found a job as a driller on this East Texas oil field. He came on down here without me and got to work. The few hours he wasn't on the rig or sleeping, he readied this place—slapped up wood walls and a tin roof, laid planks for a floor, cut out the window over there. And now here we are, as happy as any pair of newlyweds can be. John D. Rockefeller, richest oil baron of them all, couldn't be happier. He's less happy, I'd lay odds. John D. Rockefeller doesn't have Charlie in his life.

A mourning dove calls outside our open window, from the scrawny honey locust tree that grows beside our home. The shadows are swiftly paling to just that mourning dove's gray. Sun's coming up. The curtains on the window hang stiff as planks of white board; not a breeze stirs. It's going to be another stifling day. A deadly heat wave in March. Who'd have thought. Then again, who'd have thought this winter, and early spring, too, would prove dry as a bone—the drought so bad that some days the black blizzards roll east from the Texas Panhandle and right over us, then on to places as far-flung as New York City and Washington, D.C. Just last week, according to accounts, a fog of prairie dirt shrouded the Statue of Liberty. The White House, too, turned less than white. On the worst days, Charlie says he and the other fellows on the rig measure visibility in inches, not feet. Static electricity crackles in the air. Blue flames leap from metal equipment and barbwire fences, making dangerous work all the more so. One man bumps against another, they generate a spark so powerful it can knock them both to the ground.

Charlie doesn't complain, but round about noon every day, even when the sky is a stark blue ceiling marked only by the searing sun—no dust to be seen, not even on the far horizon—I'll turn sick with worry. Sometimes the dust gets so thick in the nose and throat, a body can barely breathe. Sometimes, unattended, that thickness turns to dust pneumonia, and then a body simply can't. And then there's heatstroke, the most common ailment.

Maybe today I'll hitch a ride out to Charlie with a jug of cold water and a towel. It won't be easy. “Woman on the rig!” the warning will sound, and the roughnecks and roustabouts—men of a different ilk than Charlie—will whistle and worse. But the sight of my husband cooling off, his head thrown back as he drinks from the jug, the muscles in his throat rising and falling as he swallows—well, I'd walk through hot hell for that. Let them whistle and worse. I'll pour water on the towel and rub it down the length of Charlie's arms. Down to the tip of his callused fingers, I'll work my way, wiping away grime, tending his sun-scorched skin.

I press my hands to my chest, where my heart suddenly punches. “Charlie?”

He has tipped his head toward our window in an attitude of listening. The mourning dove—that's what he's trying to hear. Charlie loves the sound of that bird, but his ears ring more often than not these days due to the noise on the rig. He says you haven't heard a ruckus until you've heard a gusher let loose. Twenty-two years old and he's losing his ability to make out discreet sounds. The mourning dove's muted, throaty coo. Me softly saying his name. The yearning in my voice. He's missed all that.

I take hold of Charlie's arm and say his name louder. He turns. “Well, hello there.” His hand settles warmly on my waist. “Didn't mean to wake you, Ruth.”

There's enough light now to see the freckles emblazoned across his sharp nose and high cheekbones. The coppery strands burnished into his curly, auburn hair. The fine lines at the outer corners of his blue eyes, which are just the color of the bellflowers that grow in the field behind my parents' house back in Alba, Oklahoma. Flowers I used to sink down into when things inside the house got hard. Now Charlie's gaze is all I need for solace, along with the wondrous rest of him.

I hear myself sigh. Wistfulness, that sigh could be interpreted as. Or desire, which would be the truth.

Charlie smiles. “Stay in bed. I'll get the coffee going.”

He moves to stand, but I keep hold of him. “Our Bed Is an Island,” I say.

It's a game we play. We want to see the ocean together one day. For now, we pretend instead.

“Ruthie.” Charlie regards me. “You know what day it is.” A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. “Not Sunday or Christmas. A plain old Monday in March—that's what day it is. If I had one magic wish, I'd make it otherwise, believe you me.”

“It's barely five.” I peer at the round-faced clock on the bedside table, sitting squat on its three little legs. “Why, it's not even a quarter till!” I beam at Charlie, triumphant. “We have time. We don't have to—you know.” I snuggle down under the hand-stitched wedding quilt that was a gift from Miss Berger—the librarian in Alba, my previous employer—who unpacked it from her hope chest and gave it to me for mine. Miss Berger, who's decided she'll never marry, wanted the quilt put to good use. Well, then. I lift the quilt's edge, so Charlie can join me under its interlocked rings of bright fabric. “We could be here a little longer. All tangled up in each other. You know.”

Charlie knows. He knows that if he returns to me under the quilt, our bed will become an island surrounded by an ocean we most often call the floor. Hawaii, our bed will become, or Barbados, Bermuda, or Bali. Or maybe one of the Galápagos would be nice, or the Cyclades, or the Canaries. Places we once mapped in geography lessons, the names of which I savor like candy on my tongue. Castaways, that's what Charlie and I will be, and we'll dreamily drift, lost in each other, far from civilization, free from dust, drought, and demands.

Charlie leans toward me, the low sound in his throat somewhere between a purr and a growl. The round identification tag he always wears—it belonged to his father, who died in the Great War—slips free of the confines of his pajama shirt to dangle from its leather cord in the air between us. Gently the silvery tag swings, steady as a hypnotist's watch. Charlie draws nearer. I stretch my arms above my head, relish the waiting. Any moment, we'll be all tangled up.

But then, when he's nearly close enough to kiss, his expression twists, and he draws away. “Nope.” He tucks the quilt around me. “We're drilling on a new tract of land today. I've got to get an even earlier start.”

Still, I don't let Charlie go. Moments pass, my hands doing this and that, all the while holding on, until finally he tickles me nearly to death and I have to release him. Then he's up like a shot, and our island is just a bed that he's not in, and our ocean is just a floor he's crossing, and the other side of our far horizon is just the kitchen in which he's making coffee.

And so it's begun, Monday. The camp town awaits me, for better and worse, and the oil field that never quits awaits Charlie. There he'll give orders, and take them, and work himself to the bone, breaking up and drilling down, drawing up the black crude that helps men like John D. Rockefeller get rich, and helps people like us get by.

WHILE CHARLIE DRESSES,
I pad barefoot in my nightgown to the kitchen. No time to waste now; breakfast needs making. I heat the stove, whip up some biscuits, fry the last three of our eggs. We like them fried hard, make a big show of calling the crackly edges bacon. I cook a can of beans, too. What with the long day Charlie faces, beans and a biscuit will satisfy me.

He sits at the table as I'm setting down our two plates. I join him, and we clasp hands. Skin against skin like this, I can't help but notice the obvious differences between Charlie and me. My skin doesn't freckle in the sun like his. Instead, never mind how much I try to cover up, I turn as brown as the biscuits on our plates. My hair is brown, too, except in the summer, when it's streaked with the sun's yellow. But nothing, not even the sun, will change the color of my eyes, which are as black as my mood used to get before Charlie and I married and moved away from Alba. There's nothing bellflower blue about my eyes; they more reflect a stormy night. I'd like to change that about myself—my black moods most of all—but Charlie says this difference in our natures is a fine thing. “Put a glass half empty and a glass half full together, and you've got the whole glass,” he teases. Once I shot back, “Half empty, my dainty foot. I'd be empty without you.” But the look he gave me was worried, not playful, so I never said that again.

Sometimes, holding hands with Charlie, I feel like a child, cared for and protected, which is a warm feeling indeed after the cold comfort of my growing up. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am grown up. This provides the single (so far) source of tension between Charlie and me. “Make yourself heard,” he said once, his voice heated. “Don't kowtow to me.”

“Let's pray,” I say now, my voice clear and firm, loud enough to be heard, no matter the state of Charlie's hearing. Together, we thank God for food and work and each other. As always, I add a silent prayer of thanks for this, the
we
of our prayer, which, since Charlie and I have been married, has made me feel closer to God than ever before. The
we
of our prayer is entirely different from what I heard growing up, at home and at the Holy Church of the Redeemed, which was established by my father, along with a few others who felt the rest of the churches in town weren't good enough. They rented a small building, called themselves Elders, found their preacher, and established their covenant. At the Holy Church of the Redeemed,
we
means the Elders, who speak for everyone else.

“Amen,” Charlie and I say.

Charlie digs in first. Or starts to. Biscuit nearly to his lips, he hesitates, eyeing my portion. Then he sets down the biscuit, scoops a heap of egg onto his fork, and reaches for my plate. I snatch my plate away. “I'm not hungry.”

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