Plain People

“We’re different folk, our family.” Ma says, kneeling beside her parrot’s cage, pushing sunflower seeds through wire bars. 

My great great grandmother came down to Texas from Tennessee over a hundred years ago. She stopped her wagon on grey land at the base of Tornado Alley and built a farm. Since then my family has been stuck between oil rigs and cattle ranches. We’re not really farmers, not native to the land.

I think we stay mostly for the heat. 

After Ma’s fed her parrot, we sit outside in rocking chairs and stare at the land spread flat, scabbed and split between stretches of wheat-yellow grass. When I was younger and Christian, I imagined God, when constructing the world, had accidently burned this land. Like toast.

The wind lifts and shuts the screen door behind us. Ma holds her hands in her lap and watches the drive for coyotes. In the quiet I think about Waylon Jennings crooning for the cowboy. My father is a little cowboy—the way people can be a little deaf—like his father before him. Lonely, angry men. But they’re a dying breed, cowboys. Like my ma, these types of people are losing their space in the world. Ten gallon hats and cotton picking folded into department stores and corporations.

When it’s too dark to watch for coyotes we go inside. Ma kneels by her parrot’s cage. Sticking a bony finger through the wire, she strokes the bird’s green feathers. Her knees creak as she stands. She walks around the house silently, checking each room slowly, methodically. When she’s done with her inspection she comes back to the family room, kissing me on the forehead before going to bed.

My ma has never left Texas. She told me once, “We are a young people.” Our family doesn’t have any ancient lineage to tie our names to. We’ve tied ourselves instead to the Texas sun. Ma lets her house bake in it, no AC; she’s acclimated.

Where the women in my family form a steady line of homes, ranch houses on black tar streets with neighbors and mailboxes, the men are harder to track. Scattered, they’re transient—mobile homes and motels. No cattle to drive; they stick to rigs. Eighteen wheelers. They spend long months crossing state lines: Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas. Moving miles with the pictures of their kids taped to dashboards. Dreaming of nights spent back home in Texas.

Almost two years ago I moved north. Since then I haven’t been back home much. I miss the heat, but the silent, bleak land scares me. I’m worried because I know I don’t have what my ma wants me to have. The warm blood. I spend nights at Ma’s on the couch, staring at the bird while sweat pools between my thighs and shoulder blades.