Authors: J. Todd Scott
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
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Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey Todd Scott
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Verses from “Tall Men Riding” by S. Omar Barker are quoted with permission of the Barker Estate.
eBook ISBN 9780698408272
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.
Shine on, babe . . .
The Far Empty
is a work of fiction,
more or less
. Murfee, Texas, doesn’t exist. But I’ve been a federal agent for twenty years, a lot of those working on the southwest border. In 2010, more than three thousand people were murdered in mostly drug-related violence in Ciudad Juárez, right across the river from El Paso, Texas. In 2012, several police officers and deputies from a special drug task force in the Rio Grande Valley, including the son of a popular and powerful local sheriff, were arrested during a federal sting operation for hijacking drug loads and protecting drug couriers. A little more than a year later, the sheriff himself pled guilty to corruption charges. In 2014, at least ninety-seven bodies of deceased immigrants were discovered by the U.S. Border Patrol in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. And in 2015, a popular travel website named Big Bend National Park in West Texas—800,000 acres of mountains and Chihuahuan Desert along the Rio Grande—one of the fifteen most beautiful parks in America.
This is all true.
This is the border I
We tried a desperate game and lost. But we are rough men used to rough ways, and we will abide by the consequences.
This is the song that the night birds sing
As the phantom herds trail by,
Horn by horn where the long plains fling
Flat miles to the Texas sky. . . .
This is the song that the night birds wail
Where the Texas plains lie wide,
Watching the dust of a ghostly trail,
Where the phantom tall men ride!
S. OMAR BARKER
, “Tall Men
y father has killed three men.
The first was over in Graham, an undercover drug deal gone bad. He was a lot younger then, only a deputy, not yet the Judge, buying weed from a California nigger—his words, not mine. Put him in front of the right crowd, give him a few Lone Stars or a Balcones Texas Single Malt—he pretends it loosens his lips like everyone else, but it doesn’t, not really, not at all—and he’ll say
I shot that ole boy two times
Once for being a nigger in Texas, then again for being a shitty drug-dealing nigger in
stretch of Texas.
• • •
The second was right here in Murfee, late summer a few years back, when Dillon Holt held his granddad’s Remington on his wife and baby daughter.
I go to school with Dillon’s younger brother Dale, so I knew Dillon a little, not much. Enough to know that only part of him—angry, broken—came back from Iraq. He hadn’t been able to keep his job at the Comanche, spooking the cows too much, and he got into more than his share of fights at Earlys. It got so bad they wouldn’t serve him anymore, so he spent that last Friday night drinking a twelve-pack of Pearl alone beneath the pecan trees behind his house, before getting ahold of a little meth early Saturday morning. By the afternoon he was shirtless on his porch, screaming at everything and nothing, his body slick and swollen and glowing like it was on fire. His wife Brenda held baby Ellie and covered both their eyes so neither of them would have to look down the barrel of that Remington.
I know all this because I was there. My father brought me on the callout, left me sitting in the truck cab. Everyone knew I was watching, but no one was going to say a goddamn thing about it.
He wanted me to see how he
That’s how he said it then, how he still says it today.
My father tried some to talk Dillon down, even let him rant a bit to see if he’d wear himself out, but when he swung that shotgun around one too many times toward Brenda’s face, my father shot him clean through his naked, burning chest with his Ruger Mini-14.
There was hot blood everywhere, fantailed up on the porch screen, on the windows, all over Brenda and the baby. It fell fast, like falling stars . . . red streaks. There’s a sound that blood makes when it hits wood or skin. Dillon’s yelling was lost to his widowed wife’s screaming. It was furnace-hot that morning, but my father didn’t break a sweat. Afterward, when he bent down into the truck to put away the Ruger, still stinking of smoke and oil and warm to the touch where it
hit my knee, his skin was dusty, cool. Dry, like a snake’s. He winked at me like we were old friends.
And that’s how he handled the business with Dillon Holt.
• • •
The third man was the husband of Nancy Coombs, the woman he was sleeping with right after my mom disappeared.
He didn’t shoot Roger Coombs like Dillon Holt or that poor black kid in Graham, didn’t even raise a hand to him as far as I know, but he might as well have, since it all turned out the same. The story I’ve heard (nobody will say it to my face) is that Roger came home after a Big Bend Central Raiders game and found my father with Nancy in their bedroom—all their wedding pictures and honeymoon pictures from the Excalibur in Vegas staring down at them as my father made Nancy moan. There were words, maybe even a punch thrown after my father got done laughing and wiping himself off on Roger’s sheets, but not much more than that—not then, anyway. A lot of people in Murfee whispered about my dad and Nancy—suspected, anyway—but they weren’t going to make much out of it.
Who was going to say a goddamn thing to the famous sheriff, Stanford “Judge” Ross?
That left Roger to deal with it: the whispers, the smiles, the laughs. Everyone knew about Nancy and my father, and Roger couldn’t step outside his house without knowing about it as well. All day, every day . . . down at the Hi n Lo he managed, every time someone came in for Lone Stars or cigarettes or Skoal Long Cut Wintergreen. Every time my father came by and poured himself a free cup of coffee, black and sour, sometimes still smelling like Nancy, before walking out with a wink and that sharp smile on his face.
Because Sheriff Ross doesn’t pay for anything in Murfee.
Not even another man’s wife.
When he’d had enough, Roger pulled his old F-150 into the parking lot of the Big Bend County Sheriff’s Department and took a brand-new Gillette to both wrists, bleeding out into the old McDonald’s bags and other shit on his floorboards. Chief Deputy Duane Dupree found him first, his dying breaths fogging the truck’s glass, but Duane took his sweet time making the call, even fired up a smoke while he rang my father first; then, a few minutes later, the county EMT. Roger was dead fifteen minutes before the ambulance arrived, and his last sight ever on this earth was Duane Dupree calmly smoking a Lucky Strike, picking at his teeth with his thumb, watching him die.
Roger left a note. I know because I overheard Duane and my father talking about it one night on our porch, but no one ever saw it or read it. Duane was carrying on, laughing about it, but my father didn’t say anything at all, just gave him that look that only my father can, when his gray eyes go black and don’t seem to reflect much of anything in front of or behind them.
That look, far more than anything he ever says, shuts lesser men up. We’re all lesser men. Staring into my father’s eyes, Duane said he’d take care of that damn letter, burn it all to hell on his Weber grill, and I bet my life that’s exactly what he did.
• • •
My father’s first wife was Vickie Schori. They met in high school right here in Murfee and were married six months after the senior prom. He was of course the king, she the queen—but a couple of years later she ran out on him to El Paso. Most people thought it was for the best anyway, at least best for young Deputy Ross (he was still
a long way from being the sheriff). There had been ugly whispers about the Schori family as long as they’d been in Murfee—as long as anyone, longer than most. They started the West Texas Cattle Auction, managed it forever, but sold it off and left town themselves a few years after Vickie, and it’s the Comanche now. No one knows where they went. No one ever spoke to Vickie again.
I’ve never seen her picture in our house, but there is one at school, pressed behind glass near the front office. It’s part of a collage of a hundred other images, bits and pieces of Big Bend Central’s history. The picture is black and white, faded. She’s standing on a football field and she looks like a ghost beneath the stadium lights. Her dress has these huge sleeves and her hair is turning in the wind and she’s waving, even smiling . . . looking at something distant, and she’s so beautiful.
All you can see of my father is his hand, heavy on her arm, holding her. I know it’s him. I’d know those hands anywhere. He’s there, present, but just out of sight. The rest of him is covered up by a baseball picture from 1988.
• • •
My father’s second wife was Nellie Banner, and they were married less than a year after Vickie disappeared. She came from a longtime Murfee family as well; she’d been a freshman when my dad and Vickie were prom king and queen. Where Vickie had been all Texas blond, Nellie was short, dark, with a drop of Mexican blood, although no one ever said that out loud. My father has never talked about her, but I think they fought a lot. Fought, made up, fought some more. Early on, they lived out on Peachtree, and I imagine the neighbors got used to a bit of yelling and banging around. Still, they showed up each Sunday at church, with my father in his uniform and Nellie in
her Sunday white, even if she wore a bit more makeup than most of the women around here thought proper for church.
Maybe she liked the way it looked. Maybe she needed that extra color to cover up the blue of bruises.
Nellie died unexpectedly in about two inches of water in the big Kohler bathtub in the new house on Rustler they built after my father made chief deputy. It was a shock to everyone, a true tragedy. Nobody could explain it, even after they brought the ME from El Paso. My father hadn’t been home at the time, out with Deputy Dupree near Nathan, coming in far too late that night to find her blue and unresponsive. Facedown in water long gone cold. Colder than her skin.
People say that my father was so upset and distraught at Nellie’s death he tore that Kohler out and replaced it—people around here swear it. I’ve heard them talking about seeing it happen with their own eyes. But I know better.
That goddamn tub’s still there.
My father’s third wife, my mother, was Evelyn Monroe. They met in Dallas while he was there for a law enforcement conference. She’d just graduated from SMU but took to him right away, I guess, and soon they were calling all the time and he was heading up to Dallas on weekends to see her. She left her new position at IBM to relocate out to Murfee, sight unseen.
I’ve often wondered about her first thoughts when she got here, way out in the middle of nowhere. What did she think when she first saw her new home? Chihuahuan scrub and long rolls of grassland; the humps and hills of the Santiagos and the Chisos hammered by the sun. Dust on everything all the time, like the whole fucking world’s covered in ash.
If it had been March or April, at least the Texas mountain laurel
would have been blooming through the caliche, and the sides of the valleys would have been carpeted in purple. She would have liked that. Purple was her favorite color.
They married and she moved into the house on Rustler that Nellie and my father built and that Nellie died in. About a year later I was born. My father eventually won the sheriff’s seat away from old Dugger Barnes, and my mom got involved in raising me, volunteering first at Barnhardt Middle and later at Big Bend Central.
My mother was beautiful, tall, thin, her blond hair always pulled back in a ponytail. There was always a hair tie or scrunchie somewhere around her, orbiting her like small stars: wrapped around her wrist, trapped on the shifter in her truck, tossed on a counter or hidden beneath cushions.
I still find them, even now. And when I do, I still cry. Not so much, a little less each time, and never where my father can see.
They smell like her . . . her shampoo. Mint and rain and green places far from here.
• • •
Thirteen months ago my mother left us, maybe to go to one of those faraway places.
That’s what the note said—a note my father claims he found folded on our kitchen counter. A note written on a piece of Big Bend County Sheriff’s Department stationery that somehow didn’t end up on Duane Dupree’s grill. It was three sentences long and all but got printed in the
, because everyone had to explain and understand and debate how Evelyn Ross—the beautiful, smart, and beloved wife of Sheriff Ross—could leave her husband and teenage son and disappear.
Gone without a trace.
People offered to go after her. When they weren’t dropping off casseroles or checking in to see how we were, they wanted to help track her down and drag her back like an old-time posse, but my father wouldn’t hear of it. He claimed she’d been unhappy for a long time, was quick then to reveal little bits and pieces of their lives—secrets he’d carried and never shared before to protect me and her reputation—all ready and at hand to explain her actions.
There were secrets, of course, real ones—not those he pretended to let slip at Earlys or at the Hamilton. Three weeks after she was gone he packed up all of her clothes and things she’d left behind and put them in boxes in the attic.
His hands were still dusty from the attic ladder when he sat me down and told me I was never to take those things out again. I had two or three days to grieve her, a generous handful of extra hours to be sullen, and then I was never to say her name again either, not in his presence. If I did, he’d have to beat the dog piss out of me, and he didn’t want to do that. He would, though, because he’d said it, and once something was said, it became the law.
He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, though. He really did.
After that he winked at me, patted me heavily on the shoulder, and got up to get a Lone Star and make a phone call. He left a dusty handprint on the shirt I was wearing, and later that night I tossed it in the trash.
• • •
I knew my mother. I
my mother. I know she would never have left so empty-handed, without any of the things she loved that he so easily boxed away.
Without her photo albums and books and the chalcedony ring and necklace her grandmother gave her when she was sixteen.
She would never have left all those things behind.
She would never have left me behind.
My father has killed three men.
My father . . . that fucking monster . . . also killed my