The Ghosts in West Texas
Two women on the run find refuge in a ghost town
Donnie always thought her mother’s house was haunted. Not because she ever saw ghosts in the white lace curtains on her window, the small one with the wooden frame that looked out at barren land. One night after finding bliss between the gentle opening of someone else’s lips, she came home and dug through drawers for a whittling knife. She found one and engraved the initials of a face that morphed slowly, and bitterly from lover to stranger. But that wasn’t the kind of ghost she thought lured in the halls of her childhood home.
When Donnie and Shelly get to the cabin in Terlingua, their sweat is dry on the back of their necks. They get out of the baby blue truck that used to belong to Donnie’s mother, carrying a duffle bag each. Donnie takes off her cowboy hat and holds it to her chest as Shelly looks at the crumbling white walls of the house, the vexing sound of the precarious swinging front door echoing over their bodies. A narrow dirt path leads to cracked front steps at the foot of the door. This is supposed to be where they feel safe, in this giant coffin shaped to look like a house. They walk in; Shelly holding on tightly to a leather jacket that had sat heating up in the back of Donnie’s truck as they drove up.
Inside the little house there is a small bed with a stool next to it. On the opposite corner of the room there’s a disintegrating pile of books. Dust covers the floor, enough dust that it can only barely be called dust as opposed to dirt. The shelves are empty, the doorknobs don’t work, the windows have broken glass. Shelly drops her bag at her feet and walks towards the bed. She puts down the jacket and kneels down. She reaches under the bed and pulls out an old wooden box that appears to be in the same condition as the house. Donnie walks towards her and they sit on the raggedy bed, both sinking more than they expected to.
“My daddy ain’t always have good to say about my mama,” Shelly whispered. “He ain’t ever really talk about her nothin,’ but he told me a story.”
Caroline Freeman was named after the state where her parents met. Nevermind that it was the first state to secede over their right to to coax agency out of her body with liberty. She never wanted no kids or no husband. By the time she understood the world enough to understand the function of both, she had been orphaned for five years. She was raised for her first decade by the same woman who raised her mama, the woman who had no patience for ugliness that she said lived in things like the darkness of Caroline’s skin. The same woman who had taken care of a host of husbands and children, tended to other people’s wounds while neglecting her own. When she died, no one was there but Caroline. Everyone had either been kidnapped or was long dead. Caroline called her grandmother mama, in fact she is sure she never knew her actual name as a child. After her funeral, Caroline decided she didn’t have any interest in the business of taking care of others. All she wanted was a house. A house that she owned with white walls and enough room to do anything. She needed only a bed for one and something to put her reading glasses on at night. She knew she wouldn’t have the need for things like loneliness and vanity. She went to west Texas because she heard about a ghost town with a population of less than 100 people. When she got there, she got held up in Plainview because she needed money. She became one of Mama Jackie’s girls and used to hang out outside The Rustwater Saloon waiting for anyone to pay her mind. She would sit under the shade of the awning, barefoot, her skin black like vanilla, not at all fighting with the sun. She by that time had realized that certain men had a taste for vanilla. And she enjoyed being desired, but never being held. That’s when she met Shelly’s father.
“He said that,” Shelly continued, Donnie moving closer next to her. “He said, ‘I knew the second I saw your mama that she would make me crazy. And she did. But I made her crazy too.’” Donnie’s hand holds on to Shelly’s right thigh as she speaks. “He said that after she had me there was no stopping her from getting to Terlingua. That she dreamt out loud about getting a house so far away from everybody that even the echo of a gunshot wouldn’t wake up nobody. When my daddy brought me up here to see her before we went to San Francisco, she shot at us and said ‘I ain’t a good shot and I ain’t trying to kill y’all, but if I do, ain’t no one coming to get you.'”
Shelly opens the box in her lap and inside there’s a small pistol with a white pearl handle. Donnie watches Shelly as she stares at the gun in the box-- her eyes fixed, her hands tightly pulling at the edges. Donnie stands up. Shelly doesn’t move. Donnie puts her hat on and walks out of the house. Shelly, still looking down at the box, now has cold, damp cheeks.
Donnie walks out of the house and sits down on the front steps. She looks out at all the brown and beige in the distance. Smaller similar houses trail scarcely down the desolate hill. The wind picks up things from between grains of dust on the ground and leaves them at other people’s homes. Donnie closes her eyes. She tips her hat down until the wind stops. Shelly walks up from behind her and sits down on the steps next to Donnie.
“Why we here?” Donnie asks. Shelly looks at her for a moment under the shadow of her hat. Her lips are glossy in the light of the sun just above her. Her eyes are invisible. Shelly looks for them but they’ve been hiding from her since her half brother bruised Donnie’s arm in that bar the night they decided to stay in Plainview. That was also the night they left. Last night.
Donnie came from a long line of cowboys. Her great granddaddy Al was a cowboy who moved cattle from Kansas to California. On one of his trips he met a woman named Camille who wrote him poems on the back of torn off posters and married her within a week. They made Donnie’s grandmama Sherry that week too. Al was on his way from Kansas City to San Diego when he got kidnapped and lynched. Camille heard the news when the rest of the cowboys, the ones that managed to escape, got to Texas with the cattle. All they could give her was his horse. Camille had always considered herself lucky. Her mother had abandoned her with Apaches further out west while being hunted so she never knew the sorrow of the plantations which bore her existence. She found a husband, one that she liked and only put his hands on her with a most ardent tenderness, when she was just 18. They even got a homestead in Plainview. The only niggers in west Texas that did. But there she was with nothing but a horse and crying toddler. She sold the horse and married one of the other cowboys that wanted to stay in Texas. She raised Sherry up to marry a cowboy too. They had a boy and a girl. The boy died and the girl raised his daughter Donnie who called her mama. Sherry lived with them while Donnie was a toddler until she got sick. Donnie only remembers her alive because it’s easier to repress frightening memories. She spent hours sitting by the kitchen window, her back against the quiet hum of the fridge. Donnie would often curl up in her lap and stare too but all she saw was a vast emptiness. She would look up at her grandmother’s face and not recognize the expression of someone obviously seeing beyond red rocks, dry trees and dusty tin roofs.
“There ain’t just dust out there Donnie,” Sherry would say. “If you look close enough you can see faces framed by dark hair and pierced by sunken eyes. There’s ghosts walking among us, and we don’t even pay them no mind.”
Donnie never pretended to understand what Sherry said. At least as a child. As she stood there in Terlingua watching Shelly cry over a gun, she was sure she knew what kinds of ghosts her mother’s house was filled with. Ghosts with gunshot wounds that perforated their torso, cut off heads in mass shallow graves, dismembered arms, defeated souls. All their skin had turned into the brown sand that covered the Texas plains. Their hair can be felt in the softness of a patch of grass under the shade of a giant boulder. Their hands erupt from the ground and hold out branches. But those are the ghosts that haunt the land, they are the guilty imagination of the colonizer. The ghosts people yearn for, the ones they look for in fading pictures and broken necklace clasps, they’re harder to find.
“Why we here?” Donnie asks again. She stands up and looks down at where Shelly’s sitting, refusing to acknowledge her pleading eyes, she averts her gaze. She puts her boot on the step next to Shelly. She leans forward and then back again. “Why’d we come here?” she says.
“I don’t know,” Shelly says. She looks back at the swinging door. “Maybe I was hoping I’d see a ghost.”
After all the heavy weaponized memories settle down, Shelly and Donnie sit in the bed of the truck. The sun as it comes down takes with it the misery of the day. Shelly’s head is in Donnie’s lap and she looks up at her face under that hat, a cloudless blue sky standing against her. Shelly squints at the sun in her eyes and Donnie moves closer to her so they can share the shadow of her hat. Shelly burrows herself deeper into Donnie, her arms now around her torso, her head on Donnie’s chest. Donnie’s hand moves up from the tips of Shelly’s fingers, stopping briefly at her wrists, to her neck. She moves her fingers lightly above Shelly’s skin, pressing her thumb down gently on her moles.
“The first girl I ever kissed was the only one that ever broke my heart,” Donnie said. “She kissed me the same night she kissed a boy in our class, at a school dance. Only I ain’t find out until the next Monday. And by that time, I done already carved her initials under my window sill. I never had the heart to sand it even though I was so mad. Anytime I felt lonely I’d sit by the window and trace her initials with my fingers, over and over and over. I ain’t sure what I was looking for, I do know I ain’t never found it. But I suppose it’s the same thing you was looking for in that box.”
Later on that day Donnie would leave for an hour to get sustenance, during which Shelly would sit by herself next to the pile of books in the house, realizing that they were quite valuable. Her half brother Darius, who she had only met that week when she got to Plainview, would drive his beat up Cadillac up to Terlingua just as she found a first edition copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God in her mother’s dusty collection. He was there at the reading of Caroline’s will and he sneered at Shelly as she got the keys to the house. Darius had a white father but that’s about all anyone knew about him. He spent his whole adult life trying to become Ms. Jackie’s right hand man. That day, the day after he bruised Donnie’s arm when he saw her kissing Shelly, he would drive up to the house to find her and get there during the hour Donnie was gone. He was screaming her name before he got to the front door so Shelly hid in the bathroom when she heard him. As she sat there in the dark, both hands shaking at the weight of the gun, he walked around the cabin knocking things over and screaming about respect. His shouting got increasingly faint as his footsteps got louder. When she saw his shadow creeping in from under the door she closed her eyes and cringed in fear, disgust, anger, as she pulled the trigger. It left her shaking uncontrollably and a hole through the door. She opened her eyes slowly to dusty light piercing through the bullet hole in the door. Then from under the door, again creeping, was Darius’ blood. She heard him fall but kept staring at the dust of light coming through the hole in the door until Donnie came back and she moved the body. First away from the door so she could get Shelly out and hold her. Then to her truck. Then to a patch of land that could have been Texas or Mexico.
About the author
Andie Ngeleka is lesbian writer, comedian and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in Gay Magazine, Into More, and HopeIRL. She studied Cinema and Media Studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts.