Uncertain Ground

Uncertain Ground

by Carolyn Osborn


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780916727673
Publisher: Wings Press
Publication date: 03/26/2010
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Carolyn Osborn is the author of The Book Club of Texas, The Fields of Memory, A Horse of Another Color, and Warriors & Maidens. She is the recipient of a Distinguished Prose Award from the Antioch Review, a Lon Tinkle Award, and an O. Henry Award. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Read an Excerpt

Uncertain Ground

A Novel

By Carolyn Osborn

Wings Press

Copyright © 2010 Wings Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60940-011-8


Emmett nearly missed the train to Galveston because he'd walked down to the corral to see a new quarter horse that had been delivered to Uncle Estes early that morning. Aunt Earlene was fuming when they finally arrived. She and Emmett had driven from the ranch near Mullin, a little bit of a town thirty miles south of Leon where we lived.

"Martha, why your brother had to have that horse sent to him this morning, and why Emmett had to go down to see it, I'll never know!" She complained to my mother while Emmett stalked off away from us to a far corner of the platform to search for the train.

Mother smiled, "Well you know Estes and horses."

She couldn't bring herself to blame her youngest brother for anything, nor could she blame his son either. It wasn't that they could do no wrong. She simply found it impossible to call them to account for whatever they did. Earlene, on the other hand, found Estes and Emmett far short of her expectations frequently. She had the look of a scold — a long face, a prominent nose, snapping dark eyes, dark hair drawn into a knot on the back of her head. Her reactions were generally exaggerated, and she was aware they were. She tried to restrain frown wrinkles by clamping her mouth shut and stretching her forehead into bland smoothness. It never worked. Whenever she attempted a placid look, she seemed about to explode from impatience.

My mother was more like her brother Estes, even- tempered, not easily angered though she could be aroused. No matter how kind she was, a special tension existed between her and Earlene, partially based on their feelings about Estes, I supposed. No matter how hard she tried, she found Earlene difficult. It wasn't Mother's fault that some people were more loveable than others although she often felt it was.

As for Estes and Earlene's son, he was another matter. Mother simply acknowledged Emmett, accepted him as she accepted her brother. Earlene, on the other hand, didn't want her son to be like his father.

I couldn't see anything particularly wrong with Uncle Estes. He was as even-tempered as Mother and as obliging. There was a sort of sweetness about him and ease, for he tended to smile broadly as if continually affirming he found you as intelligent and agreeable as he was. And he waited to hear what other people had to say. Emmett, I understood then, was to have all his father's virtues and more, but what else did Aunt Earlene think was necessary?

"Polish," my mother told me, "and education. Estes only went to college two years. Earlene didn't finish either, and she still thinks she should have."

Emmett quit prowling the west end of the platform to join us. It was nearly ten in the morning, already hot of course. Sun beat down on the red brick depot, and intense heat rose from already over-baked earth marking another long day of drought. We waited outside in the deep shade of the porch's high arches. Aunt Earlene and Emmett had been up since five, at least, since they were meeting us at the nearest Santa Fe station, about twenty miles south of Leon in Temple. Getting out of the middle of Texas required way too much time, I thought. Emmett was used to driving for miles to get anywhere, but he wasn't in a good humor that morning; neither was I, but I was hiding my dismal mood. I even took a certain pride in not letting anyone know how I was feeling. Emmett's display was enough.

"I told you we had plenty of time, Mama. I haven't even heard a train yet, much less seen one. I bet it's three counties west of here still, and there you are standing out in the heat."

"Emmett, I don't care if it's four counties away. We can catch the Santa Fe here only on Mondays and Thursdays. I'd rather be a little early than miss it, wouldn't you?"

He stomped toward the end of the platform again; since he had on his boots, we could hear him easily. He was also wearing a pair of twill pants and a white shirt that Earlene must have made him put on. Left to himself he'd never wear anything but boots, jeans, and the nearest plaid shirt. At least that's all I usually saw him in.

"He can't stand being crossed about anything," Earlene commented. "He'd rather miss a train than be wrong."

So had she, not that I would tell her. Aunt Earlene was a force, one to be contradicted or evaded. If you voiced disagreement, you were in for a long fight. Emmett had decided it wasn't worth it that morning. I kept my mouth shut while Emmett kept his distance.

Mother tried distracting her by mentioning the sales in Waco. They were both great shoppers. Though they preferred the Dallas stores, Waco was a lot nearer and not to be overlooked.

In five minutes more, the train had pulled up, heat shimmering in waves against its silvery cars. A porter helped me on while Earlene hollered for Emmett who'd circled back from the platform and disappeared inside the station.

He ambled out as if he were going nowhere in particular, as if there wasn't a train in front of him, stooped to allow his mother to kiss his cheek, and letting his suitcase bump his leg, climbed in the passenger car. Once on board, he settled next to me on the scratchy seat in his usual slouch. I got up and went across the aisle to wave goodbye to Mother and Earlene.

As we pulled away from the station, I turned back to Emmett. "You're not happy about this trip I see."

"Celia, don't you know I'm being sent?"

"You'd rather stay in the middle of Texas in August when you could be down at the coast?" Escaping summer heat, if only for a little while, was considered a necessity in my family.

"Yeah." He turned toward the window to look at the outskirts as we moved out of town. I couldn't find much of interest, but Emmett maintained it looked different from the train.

He had dark hair like his mother, olive-skin like Estes and Mother. Beyond that he was himself, good looking, I supposed, if a little sullen at the moment. He had deep brown eyes and wide set lips that could widen into a smile as generous as his father's. It was odd to be sitting next to him. Unless it was a ceremonial occasion such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, I generally saw him outside on horseback riding off with my brother, Kenyon, or leaning against a corral fence behind his house at the ranch. He lived way out in the country west of Mullin, went to a different high school and a different college; mine was UT while his was A&M. I saw him infrequently and, except for family gatherings, mainly as a lanky, restless figure in the landscape. When he came inside he grew awkward and uncomfortable. He bumped into tables, knocked against door frames, sometimes leaned against pictures on the wall, and continually nudged floor lamps and coffee tables until someone, usually his mother, reminded him he needed to avoid them. No matter where he was in a house, there wasn't quite enough room for him.

Even though we were both twenty Emmett seemed younger, in part because he was generally in trouble just as my brother Kenyon was, and in part because he'd never left Texas except for brief forays across the border from Laredo to Nueva Laredo. Despite settling in Leon, I 'd seen a wider world. Like most army brats, I'd lived in a different places — in Tennessee, Florida, and Texas — and I'd gone away to summer schools in Colorado and Mexico.

To me, Emmett was so rooted in one place he couldn't find his way out, nor did he particularly want to be anywhere else. I grew restless when I had to stay in Leon long. There wasn't enough there, not enough to do, not even enough to look at. In search of distraction I read a lot and sometimes picked up Life magazine. As if waiting for me, I found among the coverage of national news, a report on the Texas drought with full-page pictures of dead cattle laying on bare soil. The train was carrying us through that same kind of pasture land now mixed at times with fields of oats, corn, and maize, all shriveled to dust-colored tan, all stunted by the long drought. I opened the book I'd brought with me. Turning back toward me from the window, he asked, "You know why Mama wanted me to go to Galveston so much, don't you?"

I put the book aside. "I can guess."

"Yeah. Doris."



Both of us knew he'd already been required to spend the month of June in the country near Laredo. He'd had a great time working at Uncle Blanton's ranch all week and making the bars on the weekends. Although he had no gift for languages, he swore his Spanish had improved. Emmett's version of Spanish was a sort of pidgin make- do. "You savvy?" he would ask, and I'd always think of corny cowboys wearing white hats in western serials I'd seen on Saturday afternoons when I was younger. If I corrected him, I'd only be corrected in turn for speaking school Spanish. It was an old and fruitless argument for the truth was, as my father had pointed out, Emmett didn't believe he'd ever need anything but bad Spanish, an assumption my father laughed about while I could see nothing but arrogance. His fight with his mother over Doris Lacey was different.

She was, in Earlene's eyes, a sexual threat, the country high school beauty who might lure Emmett into marriage too young, the appealing daughter of a dirt farmer who, in Earlene's eyes, was only angling for a part of the largest ranch in the area. Emmett, his mother believed, was meant for a better match, so he was being shipped off for the second time that summer before he got Doris pregnant. None of this hysteria had been discussed openly in the family. My father had said, "Emmett could get that girl in trouble," and meant it. But no one ever said the question of Emmett's marriage was the key part of his mother's plan for his future social standing.

Instead they insisted Uncle Estes wanted to keep him away from rodeos. Though no one in the family had seen him do it, Emmett had been riding saddle broncs in the smaller rodeos around Mullin. Estes, I guessed, probably really didn't mind much. He'd grown up on a ranch, had broken his share of horses.

"Are they sending you away from somebody?" Emmett asked.

"Not exactly." It was true I'd been unhappy ever since I got home from summer school in Colorado, and my parents had probably guessed it had to do with Tony Gregory. I'd told them little about him except his name and the fact I'd spent most of my free time with him. Staying there for the second six weeks proved to be an impossibility since I'd promised to be a bridesmaid in a friend's July wedding in Leon. Flying back and forth to Boulder was a frivolity my parents wouldn't pay for, especially since they had also guessed correctly that I was more interested in Tony than I was in school. After the wedding there were few distractions in Leon. Two of my other high school friends had married and left. The rest, like me, helped their mothers at home and met in the late afternoons at the municipal swimming pool. Early one morning I tried riding horseback with a friend, but the road was so dusty and the country so dry, we were home in two hours. On weekends we dated whoever was in town, no one much.

Could anyone have believed a trip would cure me of longing, that a change of scene would make that much difference? I doubted it though I knew my parents held onto some old saws, and what if they did? Nearly anything would be better than finishing the summer in Leon.

"I don't mind going. I haven't been down there in years. I like the beach, don't you?"


"What do you plan to do then?"

"Celia, I don't plan. Come on. Let's go find out if this train has a diner. I'm hungry."

It was early, only eleven-thirty, but I got up and swayed down the aisle after him, rocked with the train though all the dusty brown country, traveling as fast as it could take us toward the sea. I guessed Mother and my aunt had decided I could look after Emmett, an idea I didn't relish. My own life was so confused I'd been dreaming of the lulling calm of days sitting on the beach staring at the Gulf. Now it appeared that dream might evaporate. At a distance I got along with Emmett well enough. I even liked what I knew of Doris Lacey though she, too, was someone I didn't know well. She was just finishing high school in Mullin. Like so many boys from small towns and large who went away to college, Emmett kept his serious girl friend at home. She was the one he saw the first night he came back and the last night before he left. I'd seen her in Leon at the movies with him once or twice. She didn't cling, didn't hang onto him as if she wanted to own him, nor did she seem to agree with him about everything. Doris had a toughness I admired, envied in a way. During rodeos she entered the barrel races, and they required superior riding. I wasn't interested in riding figure eights around three barrels in a row, however I'd ridden enough horses to respect her skill. I'd only seen her race once. She did it the usual way, leaning almost out of the saddle on the turns, her right arm raised high as she whipped the horse's flank on the last one. But hers was the best-trained horse — she wheeled him so close to the barrels they were almost touching — and the fastest that night.

"Do you really mind going?" I asked Emmett when we'd taken seats in the diner.

"No. Doris will be there when I get back. The funny thing is, Cousin, we're on our way to Sin City."

I laughed. He sounded so much like he'd just finished a long trail drive and was looking forward to liberty. Post Office Street in Galveston was well known as the biggest red light district in Texas. There you could buy mixed drinks across the bar when people in the rest of the state were carrying their whisky bottles around in obvious brown paper sacks and joining spurious private clubs in order to drink cocktails away from home. Gambling was another public pleasure. The whole state had evidently agreed that Galveston could be the one open city.

"They've got slot machines everywhere, and I've already got plenty of change," said Emmett. He raised his glass of water. "Here's to a fine time!"

I raised a glass to meet his but as I drank from it I could barely pretend to agree. It seemed entirely unlikely that I'd stand much of a chance of steering Emmett away from Post Office Street, bars, and slot machines. On the other hand, I didn't want to believe I was altogether responsible for him since Emmett was, I felt, already beyond anyone's control.

After lunch we spread out. Emmett was so big he could easily take up two seats. The Santa Fe carried wheat from Kansas, cotton from the high plains, and sulfur from towns on down the line, but only a few passengers that day. No one raised cotton around Leon or Temple any more, and not many people seemed to be on their way to the Gulf just then. Across the aisle from Emmett I watched him fall asleep calmed by the rhythm of the wheels clacking. I remained awake envying him his ease even if he was snoring. I'd taken the train back to Tennessee to visit my father's relatives often in the summers. A book could usually overcome repetitious landscape, so I read my way through northeast Texas and most of Arkansas each time. Now I was headed southeast, and my accumulated worries, including how Emmett and I would get along, could be suspended by someone else's story. But I let the book slide. The first time I went to Galveston kept coming to mind.

We'd almost floated in. The moment we crossed the causeway linking the island to the mainland and hit Broadway, water began rising in the car floor. Dumped by a storm that had just passed over the island, water rocked around the floorboard. Kenyon and I sat together on the back seat, both of us scared, our feet tucked beneath us. He poked me in the ribs as the water sloshed against the car's doors. I poked him back. Neither one of us said a word, nor did our father. But he would. I could feel his temper rising like the water. Our mother smiled at us over the back of the seat.

"I thought you said there was a sea-wall here, Martha." Our father's voice, though terse, was clearly accusing.

"Don't worry," she said. "Galveston floods so easy. It'll go down in a little while."


Excerpted from Uncertain Ground by Carolyn Osborn. Copyright © 2010 Wings Press. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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