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Authors: Annie Proulx

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That Old Ace in the Hole

BOOK: That Old Ace in the Hole
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Heart Songs and Other Stories


The Shipping News

Accordion Crimes

Close Range

1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2002 by Dead Line, Ltd.

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

and design are trademarks of Macmillan Library Reference USA, Inc., used under license by Simon & Schuster, the publisher of this work.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Proulx, Annie.
That old ace in the hole : a novel / Annie Proulx
p. cm.
1. Young men—Fiction. 2. Oklahoma Panhandle (Okla.)—Fiction. 3. Texas Panhandle (Tex.)—Fiction. 4. Denver (Colo.)—Fiction.
I. Title.
PS3566.R697 T48 2003
813'.54—dc21    2002030462

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-8892-4
ISBN-10: 1-4165-8892-2

Visit us on the World Wide Web:

This book is for Jon and Gail

Muffy and Geoff



and for

Doug and Cathy

with the hope that all their chickens

will be prairie chickens


So many people in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles helped me with information about the past history of the region and their present lives on the high plains that it is impossible to thank them all. Not everything I heard and saw was used—that would have meant a book in encyclopedic size—but I was sorry not to be able to include it all.

Special thanks to Cathy and Doug Ricketts of Lipscomb, Texas, who gave invaluable help, showing me everything from old bison wallows to abandoned houses, sharing their friends, accompanying me to cattle auctions and other regional events. Their deep knowledge of the panhandle and their love for the high prairie country was infectious. Cathy, in particular, eased the research task by arranging meetings with dozens of men and women, knowledgeable in their fields, and made arrangements for the BBC crew covering some of the research for this book.

Cesa Espinoza, the archival specialist at the Panhandle-Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas, was most helpful in finding windmill material for me. The curator of the No Man’s Land Museum in Goodwell, Oklahoma, suggested many books on the region’s history. Thanks to Arlene Paschel at Five Star Equipment in Spearman, Texas, for her explanations of irrigation equipment and techniques; to Robert of an oil rig makeover crew, who let me use his cell phone when I got a flat tire from a sagebrush stob in the middle of nowhere; and thanks to Doug Ricketts, who left his furniture workshop and changed that flat. Thanks to Oscar and Sandy Drake, who owned and ran the Waca grain elevator for thirty-six years and who keep the famous crow’s barbwire nest from 1930s dust bowl days in their garage. Oscar’s anvil collection, from tiny dentists’ anvils to enormous cone anvils, is the work history of the panhandle crammed into one room. Thanks, too, to Mike Ladd, Sandy Drake’s son, wheat farmer and Peace Corps volunteer, for his comments on contemporary panhandle agriculture.

Naturalist Bob Rogers, of both the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Cloud Shadow Pigeons, was an enthusiastic guide through prairie dog towns and burrowing owl sites, and I thank him for his commentary on the woolybucket tree, his one-man front yard forest and miniature nature preserve, and his devoted work in the Canadian area of the panhandle in encouraging the conservation of the prairie landscape and its natural history.

Laura van Campenhout of De Geus, my publisher in the Netherlands, helped with Dutch windmill phrases. Phyllis Randolph, the director of the Cimarron Heritage Center Museum in Boise City, Oklahoma, showed me that museum’s fascinating collection and Santa Fe Trail exhibit. Thanks to organic farmer and ranch restorer Clarence Yanke and his artist wife, Marilyn, of Yanke Farms in Sunray, fighting the good fight. Robin Mitchell of Canadian’s Mitchell Ranch and her grandfather, Gober Mitchell, introduced me to the world of racing quarter horses and showed me an extraordinary day at the 6666 Ranch in Guthrie, Texas, and another good morning at their spring branding. Thanks, too, to Glenn Blodgett, DVM, of the 6666, for a look at the inner workings of a great breeding ranch. Phil Sell of Perryton Equity gave me a bottom-to-top tour of his Farnsworth grain elevator, especially memorable the ride to the top in the creaking wire cage.

Larry McMurtry of Booked Up in Archer City, Texas, supplied me with out-of-print books on panhandle history, geography and ways. Clint Swift helped with information on economic and corporate hog production. I spent pleasant hours at the forge of Lee Reeves—knife-maker, farrier, blacksmith extraordinaire—in Shattuck, Oklahoma. There was a happy afternoon with fiddle player Frankie McWhorter for a bit of prairie music and talk.

Special thanks to Darryl Birkenfeld of Stratford and Cactus, Texas, for a view of the invisible world of Mexican labor in the panhandle and for his broad knowledge of and comments on the rural high plains economy and moral geography. Watercolorist Phyllis Ballew of Shattuck, Oklahoma, one of the movers and shakers in establishing the wonderful windmill museum in that town, was most helpful, as was banker Clinton Davis, also of Shattuck, with his remarks on contemporary panhandle development and decline, and his knowledge of the turn-of-the-century local business of raising broomcorn.

District Manager C. E. Williams of Panhandle Ground Water Conservation District No. 3 made useful comments on the agricultural use of the Ogallala aquifer. Thanks to Don and Jo anne Malone for a detailed tour and explanation of oil and gas pumping stations and their maintenance. Thanks to Louis A. Rodriques of Canadian, Texas, parrot fancier and heavy metal enthusiast, as well as rig manager for the Unit Drilling Company, for his tour and explanation of a big, clean rig. Special thanks to Mike McKinney of Merex Oil Company, for a lucid and clear explanation of the technique of floodwater recovery of oil. Gene Purcell of Higgins, Texas, haymaker, wearer of the greasy black hat, makes the best lunches for miles around and there is always stimulating conversation at his funky café, the inspirational spark for the Old Dog. Thanks also to rancher Donnie Johnson, retiree Wesley Heesch and feed salesman Bruce Eakins for their lively opinions of the way things are going in the agricultural panhandle. Artist Ruth Erikson of Canadian was good company at an Oklahoma cockfight.

Mark W. Lang of the Cabot carbon black plant in Pampa, Texas, provided an explanation and tour of a very complicated business which I could not fit into this story except in fleeting references. Retired Park Service Ranger Ed Day gave a fine exhibition of flint knapping (deleted in the final version) and a detailed tour of Alibates flint quarries near Lake Meredith. Asa and Fannie Jones and Phyllis Anderson, keepers and curators of the Kenton Museum in Kenton, Oklahoma, provided hospitality and information on dozens of curious artifacts. And, also in Kenton, thanks to Ina Labrier and her daughter Jane Apple, two women who do the work of ten, and to Bob Apple for a visit to the ruins of the old 101 ranch buildings. Photographer Stuart Klipper introduced me to Brown Paper Pete. Last but not least, thanks to Mickey and Penny Province of Lipscomb for their help and kindness, and to Trey Webb of Flap-Air Helicopter Service, who, in the air, helps gather livestock, inspect pipeline, control predators, manage game and photograph the panhandle.

That about does it.


n late March Bob Dollar, a young, curly-headed man of twenty-five with the broad face of a cat, pale innocent eyes fringed with sooty lashes, drove east along Texas State Highway 15 in the panhandle, down from Denver the day before, over the Raton Pass and through the dead volcano country of northeast New Mexico to the Oklahoma pistol barrel, then a wrong turn north and wasted hours before he regained the way. It was a roaring spring morning with green in the sky, the air spiced with sand sagebrush and aromatic sumac. NPR faded from the radio in a string of announcements of corporate supporters, replaced by a Christian station that alternated pabulum preaching and punchy music. He switched to shit-kicker airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home.

The road ran along a railroad track. He thought the bend of the rails unutterably sad, those cold and gleaming strips of metal turning away into the distance made him think of the morning he was left on Uncle Tam’s doorstep listening for the inside clatter of coffee pot and cups although there had been no train nor tracks there. He did not know how the rails had gotten into his head as symbols of sadness.

Gradually the ancient thrill of moving against the horizon into the great yellow distance heated him, for even fenced and cut with roads the overwhelming presence of grassland persisted, though nothing of the original prairie remained. It was all flat expanse and wide sky. Two coyotes looking for afterbirths trotted through a pasture to the east, moving through fluid grass, the sun backlighting their fur in such a way that they appeared to have silver linings. Irrigated circles of winter wheat, dotted with stocker calves, grew on land as level as a runway. In other fields tractors lashed tails of dust. He noticed the habit of slower drivers to pull into the breakdown lane—here called the “courtesy lane”—and wave him on.

Ahead cities loomed, but as he came close the skyscrapers, mosques and spires metamorphosed into grain elevators, water towers and storage bins. The elevators were the tallest buildings on the plains, symmetrical, their thrusting shapes seeming to entrap kinetic energy. After a while Bob noticed their vertical rhythm, for they rose up regularly every five or ten miles in trackside towns. Most were concrete cylinders, some brick or tile, but at many sidings the old wood elevators, peeling and shabby, still stood, some surfaced with asbestos shingles, a few with rusted metal loosened by the wind. Rectilinear streets joined at ninety-degree angles. Every town had a motto: “The Town Where No One Wears a Frown”; “The Richest Land and the Finest People”; “10,000 Friendly People and One or Two Old Grumps.” He passed the Kar-Vu Drive-In, a midtown plywood Jesus, dead cows by the side of the road, legs stiff as two-by-fours, waiting for the renderer’s truck. There were nodding pump jacks and pivot irrigation rigs (one still decked out in Christmas lights) to the left and right, condensation tanks and complex assemblies of pipes and gauges, though such was the size of the landscape and their random placement that they seemed metal trinkets strewn by a vast and careless hand. Orange-and-yellow signs marked the existence of underground pipelines, for beneath the fields and pastures lay an invisible world of pipes, cables, boreholes, pumps and extraction devices, forming, with the surface fences and roads, a monstrous three-dimensional grid. This grid extended into the sky through contrails and invisible satellite transmissions. At the edge of fields he noticed brightly painted V-8 diesel engines (most converted to natural gas), pumping up water from the Ogallala aquifer below. And he passed scores of anonymous, low, grey buildings with enormous fans at their ends set back from the road and surrounded by chain-link fence. From the air these guarded hog farms resembled strange grand pianos with six or ten white keys, the trapezoid shape of the body the effluent lagoon in the rear.

Still, all of these machines and wire and metal buildings seemed ephemeral. He knew he was on prairie, what had once been part of the enormous North American grassland extending from Canada to Mexico, showing its thousand faces to successions of travelers who described it in contradictory ways: under gritty spring wind the grass blew sidewise, figured with bluets and anemones, pussytoes and Johnny-jump-ups, alive with birds and antelope; in midsummer, away from the overgrazed trail margins, they traveled through groin-high grass rolling in waves; those on the trail in late summer saw dry, useless desert studded with horse-crippling cactus. Few, except working cowboys, ventured onto the plains in winter when stinging northers swept snow across it. Where once the howling of wolves was heard, now sounded the howl of tires.

Bob Dollar had no idea he was driving into a region of immeasurable natural complexity that some believed abused beyond saving. He saw only what others had seen—the bigness, pump jacks nodding pterodactyl heads, road alligators cast off from the big semi tires. Every few miles a red-tailed hawk marked its hunting boundary. The edges of the road were misty with purple-flowered wild mustard whose rank scent embittered the air. He said to the rearview mirror, “some flat-ass place.” Though it seemed he was not so much in a place as confronting the raw material of human use.

A white van turned out of a side road in front of him and he narrowed his eyes; he knew white vans were favored by the criminally insane and escaped convicts, that the bad drivers of the world gravitated to them. The van sped away, exceeding the speed limit, and faded out of sight. There appeared, far ahead, on the other side of the road, a wambling black dot that resolved into a bicyclist. A trick of the heated air magnified the bicycle, which appeared thirty feet high and shivered as though constructed of aspic. He passed another hawk on a telephone pole.

The great prairie dog cities of the short-grass plains which once covered hundreds of square miles were gone, but some old-fashioned red-tails continued to hunt as their ancestors, in flat-shouldered soar, turning methodically in the air above the prairie, yellow eyes watching for the shiver of grass. Many more had taken up modern ways and sat atop convenient poles and posts waiting for vehicles to clip rabbits and prairie dogs. They retrieved the carrion with the insolent matter-of-factness of a housewife carelessly slinging a package of chops into her shopping cart. Such a hawk, a bit of fur stuck to the side of its beak, watched the bicyclist pumping along west. As the machine moved slowly through the focus of those amber eyes the bird lost interest; the bicycle had no future in the hawk world; more rewarding were trucks on the paved highways, grilles spattered with blood, weaving pickups that aimed for jacks and snakes as though directed by the superior will on a telephone pole.

The bicyclist, reduced to human size, and Bob Dollar, in his sedan, drew abreast; the bicyclist saw a red-flushed face, Bob had a glimpse of a stringy leg and a gold chain, then the bicycle descended a dip in the road. Alone on the highway again Bob squinted at a wadded quilt of cloud crawling over the sky. There unrolled beside the Saturn the level land, every inch put to use for crops, oil, gas, cattle, service towns. The ranches were set far back from the main road, and now and then he passed an abandoned house, weather-burned, surrounded by broken cottonwoods. In the fallen windmills and collapsed outbuildings he saw the country’s fractured past scattered about like the pencils on the desk of a draughtsman who has gone to lunch. The ancestors of the place hovered over the bits and pieces of their finished lives. He did not notice the prairie dog that raced out of the roadside weeds into his path and the tires bumped slightly as he hit it. A female red-tail lifted into the air. It was the break she had been waiting for.

Bob Dollar was a stranger in the double-panhandle country north of the Canadian River. He had held two jobs in the five years since he had graduated from Horace Greeley Junior University, a hybrid institution housed in a cinder-block building at the edge of an onion field off Interstate 70 east of Denver. He had expected enlightenment at Horace Greeley, hoped to find an interest that would lead to an absorbing career, but that did not happen and his old doubts about what he should do for a career persisted. He thought a wider educational scope would help and so applied to the state university, but even with a modest scholarship offer (he had a large vocabulary, good reading habits and exemplary grades), there wasn’t enough money for him to go.

Armed with his computer printout diploma from Horace Greeley he found it difficult to land what he thought of as “a good position,” and, finally, rather than work in Uncle Tam’s shop, took a minimum-wage job as inventory clerk for Platte River Lightbulb Supply.

After thirty months of toil with boxes and broken glass and miniscule annual raises he had had an unfortunate experience with the company’s president, Mrs. Eudora Giddins, widow of Millrace Giddins who had founded the company. He was fired. And he was glad, for he did not want life to be a kind of fidgety waiting among lightbulbs, as for a report card. He wanted to aim at a high mark on a distant wall. If time had to pass, let it pass with meaning. He wanted direction and reward.

There followed five months of job hunting before he was hired on as a location man for Global Pork Rind, headquarters in Tokyo and Chicago, with a field office in Denver. He was assigned to the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle territory and sent out on his first trip for the company.

The day before he left, Mr. Cluke’s secretary, Lucille, had flashed him a red smile and waved him into the office. Mr. Ribeye Cluke, the regional operations manager, got up from behind his glass-topped desk, the gleaming surface like a small lake, said “Bob, we don’t have many friends down there in the panhandles except for one or two of the smarter politicians, and because of this situation we have to go about our business pretty quietly. I want you to be as circumspect as possible—do you know what that word ‘circumspect’ means?” His watery eyes washed over Bob. His large hand rose and smoothed the coarse mustache that Bob thought resembled a strip of porcupine. His shoulders sloped so steeply that from behind it looked as though his head was balanced on an arch.

“Yes sir. Keep a low profile.”

Mr. Cluke picked up a can of shaving cream from the top of the filing cabinet and shook it. From a drawer in his desk he removed an arrangement of braces, straps and fittings and put it over his head so that part rested on his shoulders, and another part that was a large disk against his breast. He tugged at the disk and it opened out on a telescoping arm, becoming a mirror. He applied the shaving cream to his heavy cheeks and, with a straight razor which he took from his pencil jar, unfolded it and began to shave, skirting the borders of the mustache.

“Well, that’s good, Bob. Last fellow we thought could scout for us believed it meant something that happened to him in the hospital when he was a baby. So he was no use. But you’re smart, Bob, smart as a dollar, ha-ha.”

“Ha-ha,” laughed Bob, who had increased his word power since the age of nine with
The Child’s Illustrated Dictionary
given him by his uncle Tam. But his laughter was subdued, for he knew nothing of hogs beyond the fact that they were, mysteriously, the source of bacon.

“In other words, Bob, don’t let the folks down there know that you are looking for sites for hog facilities or they will prevaricate and try to take us to the cleaners, they will carry on with letters to various editors, every kind of meanness and so forth, as they have been brainwashed by the Sierra Club to think that hog facilities are bad, even the folks who love baby back ribs, even the ones hunting jobs. But I will tell you something. The panhandle region is perfect for hog operations—plenty of room, low population, nice long dry seasons, good water. There is no reason why the Texas panhandle can’t produce seventy-five percent of the world’s pork. That’s our aim. Bob, I notice you are wearing brown oxford shoes.”

“Yes sir.” He turned one foot a little, pleased with the waxy glint from the Cole Haan shoe which retailed at $300 plus, but which his uncle Tambourine Bapp had fished from a donation box left at the loading dock of his thrift shop on the outer banks of Colfax Avenue.

Uncle Tam had raised him. He was a slender, short man with vivid, water-blue eyes, the same eyes as Bob and his mother and the rest of the Bapp clan. Thick greying hair swept back from a square brow. His quick chicken steps and darting hand movements irritated some people. Bob had been a little afraid of him the first week or two because his left ear rode half an inch higher than the right, giving him a crazy, tilted look, but slowly he yielded to Tam’s kindness and sincere interest in him. His uncle’s cropped ear was the result of a childhood injury when his sister Harp cut off the fleshy top with a pair of scissors as punishment for playing with her precious Barbie doll.

“He wasn’t playing! He was
her,” she had sobbed.

When he was eight, Bob’s parents had brought him to the thrift shop doorstep very early in the morning, told him to sit there next to a box of dog-eared romance novels.

“Now when Uncle Tam gets up and starts slamming things around inside, you knock on the door. You’re going to stay with him. We’ve got to run now or we’ll miss the plane. Quick hug goodbye,” said his mother. His father, waiting in the sedan, raised his hand briskly and saluted. Years later Bob thought it might have been the break the old man was waiting for.

At first his uncle claimed it wasn’t abandonment. They were in the kitchen at the table, Uncle Tam having his Saturday coffee break.

Viola and Adam to bring you over. The plan was for you to stay with me until they got back from Alaska. After they got their cabin built they were coming back to get you and you were all going to live in Alaska. You staying here was a temporary thing. We just don’t know what happened. Viola called only one time to say they had found some land, but she never said exactly where and there’s no record of it. The pilot that flew them to wherever they went left Alaska and went to Mississippi where he got into dusting crops. By the time we traced him it was useless. He’d crashed in a cotton field and suffered brain damage. Couldn’t even remember his own name. Anything could have happened to your mother and father—grizzly bear, amnesia. Alaska’s a big place. I don’t for one minute think they abandoned you.” He tapped his fingers on the table, impatient with his own words which sounded stupid and inadequate to him. It was not possible for two grown people to disappear as had Adam and Viola.

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