Nellie Downer’s story checks every box on the list of attributes guest judge Bryan Washington appreciates in short fiction: “stories with distinct voices, a keen sense of place, and a palpable intimacy.”
Nellie Downer’s “Immaculate” offers a Texas-sized opening line—“It was a big goddamned land”—before zooming in on a little car on a lonely road somewhere between Wichita Falls and the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Rancher’s daughter Mae has just visited her sick father; now, “she felt sick, certain it was the thing inside her that caused the cement to buckle as she drove over it, like little her and her little car were some broiling force of choler and dudgeon come to exact a price, and the ground itself split in submission.”
Winner of this year’s Observer short story contest, “Immaculate” checks every box on the list of attributes guest judge Bryan Washington appreciates in short fiction: “stories with distinct voices, a keen sense of place, and a palpable intimacy.”
As you’ll soon learn, intimacy is a concept that covers a lot of ground. A big goddamned land. —David Duhr, fiction editor
It was a big goddamned land. Could fly to Paris or London in the time it took to drive the distance between Harris and Castro counties. Not that Mae had ever been to the Old World. She told herself she had no need to go, that this world was plenty old enough and its age could be known through the deep secret burials locked like so many xenocrysts in the rock beneath.
She was trembling and it wasn’t just the old roads in need of tarring. It was the thing inside her, and she felt sick-certain it was the thing inside her that caused the cement to buckle as she drove over it, like little her and her little car were some broiling force of choler and dudgeon come to exact a price, and the ground itself split in submission. And she felt that way of course because it was so. The roads had been fine yesterday when she’d come.
She’d planted the seed for seedless Reed. She could choose now to water it or excise it—she knew well the way to do the latter and no doctor necessary, she had womantaught and Godsanctioned tricks no man and no man’s law could undo—though she knew she would not uproot it now that she’d done the sowing. That wasn’t the way of a rancher’s daughter, and she was every bit a rancher’s daughter and had proven it to herself for good this time. No: Now it was hers to grow, polycultured with the lie, and both would find fertile pasture in her husband’s swollen pride.
Papa was sick and wasn’t it swell. Sick in the body way now, not just in the brain way. Papa was sick and Mama was waiting for him to die so she could hurry off to a respectable old folks’ home in town and escape the smell of cow and horse and sweat and disrepute. The stench of disrepute wafting stronger all the time since the letters from the government started coming in the mail talking adulterated and talking drug residues and talking inadequate this and compliance that. Mae would find the government papers torn to bits and mixed in with the kindling when she would come back for a week in August to help with the auctions and her parents would stand intractable and blank-eyed like the odd steer too dumb to realize what he had coming. That was Papa and that was Mama: wooing disaster like a paramour and lovesick for its cud-tasting kiss. Mae had tried for years to salvage what they were hellbent on savaging, making telephone calls and keeping up with industry literature recommending this intervention and that medication, but it was like battling greenbugs in a wheat field over a long cool winter, and she had to accept that there would be loss. And once accepted, in part relished, because who doesn’t wish calamity upon the people who brought them into this sphere of calamities to begin with. Who does not crave at a molecular level something akin to genetic justice.
Papa was sick. It was the reason she’d come. When Mae arrived Mama was out succoring a first-time heifer in the midst of dystocia who was ready to give up on the operation entirely with the oblong fetus still folded up inside her. Easier to die than to do this. And better to. Mama always said she understood the cows when they felt that way, and Mama always said this with eyes on her daughter or on the house’s lone photograph of her daughter, age 11 and feral atop a spindly brindle, the photo propped crack-framed on the mantel. But just as well and plenty fitting that Mama was out with eyes elsewhere while her husband and her daughter. While they.
The bedroom door was open, Papa ever claiming he had nothing to hide. But what Mae saw, she felt should rightly have been hidden: the crooked wizened little body and sores on the skin that was pasty soft now when it had always been sunbrowned and taut over his dancing tendons. The big mean head alone was as she remembered, square and ridged like the jerrycan he kept in the barn and claimed was snatched from the rubble of the war and was real German make and which she had only ever touched in heldbreath anticipation as if an actual Nazi soldier with gleam-buckled boots might spring forth from the spout. The unchanged head that lay upon the thin pillow was heavy and blunt like a makeshift weapon and when the eyes were closed it was unidentifiable at all as a human face and apt to be thought some byproduct of industry, now scrap. But the eyes had fluttered open at her footsteps, clarifying Papa’s humanity, and she saw that the eyes were also changed: not the great cocky blue of the Panhandle sky but a cloudy intimation of the color more like to skim milk.
Hello, she said to the quiet room. The slat bed hewn from chokecherry swelling out to fill the curtain-darked space and swallowing the shrunken body that had once done the hewing. Or so told. A whisper or a whimper from the space where the quilt met the wilted pillow. I can’t hear you, she said and she took a step closer and felt for the first time in Papa’s presence that she need not rush. That this was her time and she could take it. And that is when her body began to shake and when the roads leading out to Klimmitt and snaking past Wichita Falls began to crack with the quaking of her soul whose tectonic plates thrust out of their impasse at last and the way was swift and it was quiet and it was irrevocable. She doubted his body could do it for a moment but needn’t have—that crude part of him so hard she swore it would break off inside her and thought that would serve him right for all the times it broke her insides such that they could never heal and when she was finished with him he whispered Mama’s name: Patricia.
Mae watched the events of the afternoon prior like a film reel on loop as she drove because she knew from practice that once she’d seen it enough and acknowledged the detail and accepted the smells and the sounds and the spasms of the flesh, once she’d done this a sufficient number of times she could stop feeling things about the interlude and it would just be a distant picture like she might’ve glimpsed in passing on the Ackerlys’ television set. And that was the safest way for a life to be remembered: as a flickering image that disappeared when you took two steps toward elsewhere and the rule was step fast.
So she watched herself pull up his flannel long johns, which he wore now even in the summer because the chill had set into his bones and had nothing to do with the season and everything to do with a life of sin. She heard again the hushed static of his white wiry belly hair pressed back against his body beneath the elastic waistband and realized in hearing it again how quiet the house was, how quiet the country. And she thought for not the first time, as she drove past the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River and headed for the interstate, how painfulstrange it was that in a place so silent no scream is heard, and how that lesson once learned leads to screams stifled because neater to think if someone could know someone would do. Something. She heard him say Mama’s name again but this time as a question and watched herself take steps away from the bed on the smooth plank floors, an amalgam of whatever lumber was to be had when there were repairs to be done, and she remembered remembering how as a child she’d always aimed her feet at the insets of rosewood whose provenance was said to be a great-uncle’s Brazilian guitar that had been split in a moment of apocryphal rage for a grave wrong committed or suspected and now either forgotten or known by some but only insinuated, the mystery making the wood more awful and her toes would search out the red patches hungry for contact with that slick awe.
And she saw again herself sitting down at the kitchen table and flipping through the mail and opening a catalog to the pages Mama must have earmarked in desire, a brazen act she never would have dared while Papa was still on his feet. And in those pages intimations of Mama’s dreams of some other life she might have led or perhaps thought she might still. Table linens with fine blue embroidery at the edges. An electric steam iron. A music box that twinkled “The Honeysuckle and the Bee.” And she ate the hand pie placed before her when Mama came in from tending the cow and the conversation was limited to Mama’s saying after many minutes that the calf was taking the colostrum now and Mae responding, That’s good, Mama. Hand reaching for a second pie laden with beef and sweet onions because she was suddenly certain that the only way to keep from retching was to keep swallowing things down.
And she recalled the relief at the fact that days ended early in that country and the dumb stupefaction on the heels of that relief when Mama said she’d laid the linens in Mae’s old room. In her lying mind she had told herself she’d sleep on the couch, somehow better, or her car, or even make a night drive back to the Gulf Coast, where the air was dense like armor and bodies thus weighted stayed where they should be, not like here with the thin air and the harsh wind and objects ending up where they weren’t intended and didn’t belong and crashing into one another and splintering in the wild dark gales. Mornings spent piecing together the fragments of the night destruction and the only analysis done a shrug. Mae had finished growing by the time she was 12 but had been efficient in those dozen years, and so even as a child that room was narrow and cramped and the ceiling too low and Mama’s maiden bed on its high carved legs left Mae sandwiched between thick beams of wood above and below and the room had no window because a window in a girlchild’s room wasn’t prudent. Could be snatched while very young or could elope while not much older and either way a girl was to leave according to her parents’ plan, for one had borne her the other had fed her and she owed them that obeisance. But while the front of her mind had fancied and dallied chicklike, the back of her mind had been clever-ready-sure, and so when the breathing became labored in the little room she fished in her satchel for the tablets that would take her under. And thank God for the back of her mind, which gave her no rest but which saved her when she needed saving, and remembering that and offering a brief prayer, she swallowed three tablets and didn’t wake till near noon.
She remembered Mama sitting at the table with breakfast laid and long gone cold and staring at the clock Mae had built in woodshop because there hadn’t been enough girls at the high school in those years for home ec and anyway both boys and girls of 16 already knew to balance a budget if there was any money to be had and to carve up a cow and to feed an army should one happen into town and need billeting. Breakfast time is 7 and 8 on Sundays and hasn’t changed, Mama said. You’ve made me late. Mae’s mouth was fuzzy from the medication and the uncleaned teeth and she felt any words she spoke would be rank and so she kept quiet and sat. She drank the cold oily coffee and ate the cold eggs and spread sand plum jelly on the cold toast and everything tasted so familiar she kept eating and eating like the taste could take her somewhere she wanted to be. And Mama seeing this and softening and rising up on crackling knees to make a fresh pot of coffee and slice cinnamon bread fresh from the oven meant for a neighbor but she could make another. Mae ate till it hurt but this hurt was better than the other.
A final goodbye to Papa, who was near to lucid that morning and said, Hello, my girl, and asked when she’d got here and how long was she staying and the questions turning the contents of her belly to acid so 20 miles out she had to stop and be sick at the side of the road. And after goodbye to Papa back to Mama and turned cheek kissed and sharp eyes evaded and after walking out onto the porch pretending not to hear the final words whispered from where Mama sat still at the kitchen table now whistle-clean like no meal had been had, sitting and beseeching the good Lord to keep snakes and ingrates and loose women out of the home and in the dirt where they belonged. And in remembering Mama’s final prayer her belly roiled again and she pulled over again but this time she swallowed down what came up and kept driving.
By the time she was home to Reed it was closing in on midnight and she had sucked the sentiment out of the memories so they sat quiet and small and dry like currants at the back of the pantry. Reed’s bags packed by the door for the next day’s deployment and rings from how many sweaty beers on the side table. And though she still stank of vomit and Klimmitt and shame she sat down next to him on the sofa and placed a hand on his tense ungiving thigh and told him that she’d thought about what he’d said and had prayed and believed Jesus would help them that night. He was quiet and in his quiet her mind spun thinking of all the things he might be thinking, thinking could he know, thinking if he knew would he understand, and in that silence she waited for what she knew would be her life sentence for her crime.
Slow sips until last beer drained and the dampened thump of the empty bottle on soft old wood timed to the skip of her unsettled heart. He stood and turned his back to her and she thought this is the end, then, and she asked herself what she would do with the thing and what would she do with herself and in an instant the choices came down to two: death or disappearance, and the one was the way of the coward, so just one route left to her.
But no: because Reed toed off his clodhoppers and made with socked feet to the bedroom and lifted his hand to slap the door frame before entering like he would when he matched three on the Cash Five and sank to the bed where he sat splay-legged and sloven and smiled out at his bride from the dark room. And he reached out his hand and said That’s my girl and said Praise be to God and Mae said Amen and she went to him.
The Texas Observer is grateful to all who participated in our tenth-annual short story contest. A list of all finalists and honorable mentions appears below.
In this year's Texas Observer Short Story Contest winner, Daniel Zima, publisher/editor of a Czech-language newspaper, delivers papers to his elderly neighbors in a nursing home while awaiting a buyer he suspects will never appear.