“In Luckenbach,” by Victoria Campbell

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In Luckenbach, Texas, we were happy. In that strange place, surrounded by ruined buildings and dusty land, we seemed as if we could last forever. The drive there was long, and the stories endless, but the landscape rose like a giant and the rust colored rocks seemed to tell tales of their own. Crosses bigger than children dotted every sharp bend and the road seemed to stretch on infinitely.

I held onto your knee as you drove, my head swiveling this way and that, taking in the land; the likes of which I had never seen.  You sang me bits and pieces of country songs, words here and there that belonged, some that didn’t. Childishly, I made you stop at a roadside stand outside of Fredericksburg and cajoled you into buying a carton of peaches from a raison faced old man who turned out to be your cousin. Back in the car, we tore into the soft fruit, juice running down our chins; greedy, sticky fingers. We carelessly dropped the pits out of our rolled down windows, leaving a trail as we went.

“Happy?” You asked.

“Oh, yes.”

In the kitschy saloon at Luckenbach, the sad eyes of old country singers stared out from yellowing posters and the dark-haired woman at the bar slung dogged Lone star beers to sweaty tourists without even the hint of a smile.  Outside, we picked our way across the grass, dirt marring our matched black boots. You warned me to be careful, to look out for hidden holes and bricks. I didn’t listen, though, and pitched forward as my toe came in contact with the nearly buried foundation of a long forgotten home.

“Who do you think lived here?”

“A family, maybe,” you shrugged and moved off to inspect an old well.

I lingered for a minute, maybe more, and rebuilt the house in my head, adding bricks, windows, a white Dutch door. A man, a woman, and one, no, two small children lived here. Out back, a garden, fed by the well, yielded cauliflower, red cabbage, sweet potatoes. Things to fill a family. They ate these root vegetables, worked hard to grow them, to sustain them. The boy grew strong, he followed his father into the fields, learning the ways of the land. He knew almost instinctively what water to drink, what to avoid. He grew into the horse his father had bought him, made it his own without too much working at the bridle. He would whisper to the big beast, bring the creature apples and win its trust with an open palm full of homemade sugar cubes.

Back at the house, the girl would learn the ways of a home, shadowing her mother through a series of daily tasks. She would churn butter rhythmically, her hands sprouting hard patches with every twist of the paddle. She would dream of another life with eyes open, staring out at the fields through the small kitchen window.

At dusk, the boy and his father would return to the house, accompanied by the setting sun, hungry and sweat soaked. The dirt under their fingernails stood as a testimony to their days in the fields. They would be greeted with dinner served on a hand hewn wooden table, a thing that had originally belonged to the wife’s family. Once, when the girl dropped a napkin on the floor, she found her mother and father’s initials carved into the underside of the table, ringed by an imperfect heart. She had shown her brother one Sunday and they, too, had added their names to the soft wood.

“Bird,” I had called.

You came towards me.

“What?”

“I want this,” I said, slipping my arm around your waist.

“What?”

“This,” I said, tracing the figure of the imaginary house with my free hand.

“This is what you want, Yankee girl?” You asked, smiling down at me.

“Oh, yes.”

Back in Austin, despite the tall buildings and the glass and the car exhaust, I still couldn’t clear my mind of the idea of that family. You and I would sit in our regular bars, dark places lit by neon signs where the air was heavy with smoke and unfulfilled dreams. And, after too many shared beers, I’d speak of it again.

“A garden,” I’d say, peeling back the red and white label on the bottle, “land of my own.”

You’d laugh, pull my stool a little closer to yours.

“And where do I figure into all of this?” You’d whisper in my ear.

“You’d fix the broken things, build me a house.”

“Is it that easy?” you’d ask.

“Oh, yes.”

Later, when things started to come undone between us, I’d think of that family again. I’d wonder what happened to them and how their home came to turn to ruin. I’d wonder if their land died on them, if the animals gave up the plow. Perhaps the well dried up and the soil turned to dust. In my mind, though, I would hope that they moved to a city; Austin, maybe, or San Antonio. I would hope that they would flourish, find a trade, a way. 

For us it was something much more simple. The way that things come and go between two people who once shared something. There are the things that people leave behind. For that family, it was a home, four walls, and a hearth. You and I left nothing more than a few half-full beer bottles and a handful of empty promises.

——

Victoria Campbell grew up in a small town in New Jersey. She studied English with a creative writing concentration at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. This fall, she will begin the first year of an MFA program in fiction. This is her first published piece.