In a Part of Texas That Disappeared and Was Never Seen Again

Nancy Wayson Dinan

I guess all my life men have been telling me what it means to be a man, and I still don’t get it, but then I’m not one, am I? They told me as a way to explain the difference between them and me as if I needed an explanation. You know the kind of woman I am without ever having met me. I’m the kind of woman who doesn’t have close girlfriends, who never did learn how to say the right thing instead of the thing she was thinking, who drank grain spirits instead of blackberry cordial. But for all that I was like a man, there was a difference, and I didn’t need anybody to explain it to me. I remember, even after all these years, the morning I learned.

My own son, Russell, tried to explain it to me once, long after he’d been drafted, and after he’d been divorced. He told me he was a man because he’d been to war, just like I was a woman because I’d had a child. These were the formative experiences of our lives, he told me, told me he’d read it in a book. These were the essential experiences of each sex, the book said, the things we were made for, and I just can’t agree with him, because it seems to me that the essential experience of a man undoes the essential experience of a woman, and I don’t know that I buy that. Instead, I thought of Russell as a young boy in a coonskin cap, watching Davy Crockett on his uncle’s black and white TV, and then picking off squirrels with his BB gun. And of course, when I thought that, I thought of young boys holding real guns, and that made me think of Boyd, though he’s been dead, well, I guess close to seventy years now.

That whole place is gone now: my folks’ farm, the town, the old post office, the cotton gin. They moved some of the graves, but they didn’t move his or my mother’s, because they weren’t in a proper cemetery, but in a family plot up by Dry Creek. I never did find out what happened to those dead people, but I imagine them and their old pine boxes are shriveled down to nothing, part of the clay dirt underneath Fort Hood. They moved my family off the land in ’42, and none of us went back until my own son passed through there before he shipped off to Vietnam.

It was a terrible thing, but I was just a little girl, maybe twelve. And I’d heard what they were going to do at Camp Hood—it was Camp Hood then—and I knew how selfish it was to put my loss against all of that pain going on in Europe. The Germans had the Panzer divisions, and that don’t sound like much now, but it scared a lot of people back then, and the Army set to work, building this big anti-tank base right there in what they probably thought was the middle of nowhere. But it wasn’t, now, was it? They gave us almost a month to move off our land, and we were lucky to have that much time.

But Boyd—this idea of what it means to be a man. Now, my daddy was a man, used to ride to town on that big old sorrel gelding that everybody else was so afraid of. And he had a soft spot for my mother’s dog, this little brown and white spaniel she’d brought from Killeen when she’d returned for my grandfather’s funeral. My mother was sad, then, sad about being away from her family, kind of fragile about leaving Killeen for good, and my father was protective of her and her dog. Sometimes my daddy would let that dog ride on the horse with him, right in front of him on the saddle horn, and that dog would be perched up there just as nice as you please, and here everybody else would make sure to steer clear of that horse. But my father was brave, and not in a foolish way.  

And my brother, John. He was a man, too, although that came later. This time I’m thinking about with Boyd, John wasn’t but fifteen, and he was so skinny and full of bluster, and his red hair stood up from his head every which way, so that it was kind of hard to take him serious. I never did in those days, and I was three and a half years younger than he was. He wanted you to take him serious, and I think that was the problem. You don’t ever take somebody serious when they pretty much tell you to.  

But Boyd. If you had asked me that very morning, the morning I’m talking about, whether or not he was a man, well, I would have said he’s not a woman, but he’s crippled. He can’t do the things a normal man can do, can he? He can’t muck a barn, or pick cotton or split wood, or any of the other things John and my daddy did every day. He could sit with me in the dog run porch and churn butter because he could do that sitting down. He could snap peas or shuck corn, or even darn socks, but you wouldn’t catch him slopping the hogs. Now I ask you, would you have said my brother Boyd was a man, the way people said my daddy was one?  Things were different then; Boyd never had a wheelchair or a handicapped parking place.

I suppose it might have been harder for Boyd because he remembered what it was like to walk, but then again, I suppose that might have made things easier, too. At least he got to do it once, maybe. While he was alive, we never talked about it, and I don’t get the feeling I should have asked.

Boyd was twenty that autumn I was twelve, and he’d been crippled since I was a baby. He’d had the accident when he was ten, taking the wagon to the dry goods store over in Okay to get coffee, sugar, and flour. On the way back, in the heavy dusk, a hoot owl had swooped right over the horses’ head, pecked them maybe, and the horses had taken off running, and Boyd only ten and trying to rein in two runaways. The wagon had bucked him off, and he got caught underneath it, and the horses had run all the way home, dragging him, and he was a bloody mess.

Now I can’t really say I remember this, because I was so young, but at least I think I do, and in any case, John told me all this later, but the doctor came down from Killeen and set up to amputate, set up white sheets on a table, and pulled out his instruments, including a bone saw. When Boyd realized what they were planning on doing, he grabbed that bone saw and announced that if anybody cut off his leg, well, they better never sleep again because he was planning on returning the favor. And they saw he was serious, so the doctor cleaned out as much gravel as he could, tried to straighten all those breaks, and then told Boyd how stupid he was, but how it didn’t matter because Boyd didn’t have long to live. Boyd handed him back that saw, and we never saw that doctor again. I wonder if he ever found out Boyd didn’t get gangrene, and that he didn’t die then, of those wounds, but that he was only a cripple? I wonder if that doctor would have felt relieved for Boyd, or if he would’ve been mad that he’d been wrong. I wonder where my mother was, whether she was proud or sad.

Anyway, by the time I was twelve, Boyd was used to hopping around with his crutches, and he was used to helping with the women’s work. I’m trying to remember if it ever upset him, and it seems to me that sometimes I would catch his eyes following my daddy and John off to the barn or the fields or the sty. It seems to me that sometimes he might have looked a little sad, or been a little mad that he had to stay with me and Mama, but then again, this was seventy years ago, and that may be a story I tell myself these days.

Now, the night before the day I’m thinking of, Daddy came to tell us that tomorrow he was going to kill a hog. Like I said, our house had a dog run porch down the middle, and on one side was the kitchen and a little parlor area to make Mama feel proper. On the other side of the dog run was where we all slept, two rooms, one for us kids, and one for my folks. Because I was the only girl, I had my own bed, but Boyd and John slept together in a bed made of hickory posts with rope strung across to hold up the mattress. I was almost asleep, listening to my folks on the other side of the dog run, listening to the quiet voices of my parents after supper. I was underneath that patchwork quilt my Mama made me. I wonder what happened to that quilt, if we left it out there for the Army to take.

The door creaked and my father came into the room. He had extra blankets for me and for my brothers. “Getting cold tonight, boys,” he said, but I knew he was talking to me, too. “We’ll slaughter one of them hogs tomorrow.”

And Boyd—now where did this come from?—but Boyd, he sat up, and he said, “Daddy, I want to do it,” and he was twenty years old and hadn’t held a shotgun in ten years.

“Son, John’s a pretty good shot,” my dad said, not saying no but not saying yes either. “You got to get them right in the middle or they go crazy."

And Boyd, he looked at my father in a way that said he didn’t ask for much, but that he was serious about this one. And my father, he just said, “Well, we’ll see,” and he closed the door behind him and went back to sit with Mama.

As soon as he was out of the room, my brothers started to arguing. “You can’t shoot a hog. You ain’t held a gun in ages,” John said. “I’ll use your .410,” Boyd said, and I heard John whistle, as if saying, Boy, that was rich.

They argued like that for a while, and all the while I tried to fall asleep, because none of this affected me any, and John kept saying how you got to hit a hog right square between his eyes and ears. He said you can’t do that to a beef, which is what we called a cow then, but you had to do it to a hog, or else they ran around like crazy before they died, and it occurs to me now that I wonder if that is why people say when somebody’s running around, they’re going hog wild. I fell asleep listening to them, and smelling the sweet smoke from my mother’s wood stove. Nothing smells like that anymore, like home, if you know what I mean.

When I woke up, the sun was already in the sky, but it was low, and I knew that I’d slept late but not too late. My mother was boiling coffee, and she had cornmeal mush and fresh milk, and I ate just a little bit because I was wondering where John and Boyd were, and if they’d ever decided who was going to shoot the hog. Boyd was my mother’s favorite, but my mother knew me, knew how I was, and as soon as I finished my breakfast, she said, “Well, go on, Lucille,” and I ran down the hill to the sty, because I wanted to see what was going to happen, and Mama’s dog followed me. I tied an apron over my skirt, as if that would keep me clean, but I ran down there barefoot with two braids bouncing on my shoulders. In those days, we were always barefoot and didn’t think anything of it. We were barefoot at school even, unless somebody was going to take our picture.

When I got down to the sty, I saw our biggest hog with a rope tied to one ankle, and John holding that rope. Boyd was leaning on his crutches, trying to get a good hold of John’s .410.  My daddy was standing by the wood pile, and I knew he’d been chopping kindling for the fire he would use for boiling water to scald the hog. I hopped up on that wooden fence, as I’d been doing since I could walk, and I leaned over to watch the show, and I tried not to breathe too much of the hog’s sour smell. Beside me, the dog stuck its head through the slats, and it watched too, just like it was a real person.

I saw that Boyd had won last night’s argument, and frankly I wondered how he’d done that since both John and my Daddy hadn’t seemed too set on Boyd shooting the hog.

Nevertheless, there he was, and I was glad because I felt like he at least deserved the chance to do something like that, something that the men got to do. By this time, John had shot countless hogs, and Boyd never had shot one, so I thought it was only fair that Boyd was standing there trying to balance both his crutches and a shotgun. Like I said, I don’t know if I remember the night of his accident well or not, but his threatening the doctor had made an impression on me, and crippled or no, I considered him heroic. He balanced the shotgun on his shoulder, leaned his head down both to sight and to brace the gun, and we all held our breath. After a minute, he fired.

Well, I don’t really have to tell you that he missed, do I? I don’t have to tell you that he shot that hog right through the eye, and not right in between, and that the hog screamed like a woman, and took off running, and John was holding the rope, and fell down and then the hog ran right over him. That wasn’t no light hog, either, but John popped right up and tried to jump on the rope. Boyd dropped the .410, and let out this noise, this strangled noise, and I saw his face was twisted like something mangled, like it had been scarred in that accident, too, but it never had been.

Well, I guess that dog didn’t like the sound Boyd made, or it didn’t like the high-pitched squeal of the shot hog, or it didn’t like seeing that crazed, wounded thing running all zigzagged through the sty. The dog started barking like crazy, and I was going to pick it up, I was going to calm it down, only Boyd threw one of his crutches right at us, and he’d missed the hog, but he didn’t miss my Mama’s spaniel. The crutch hit the dog right in the temple, and he keeled over, mid-bark, and when the dog stopped barking, the hog stopped squealing, too, and I looked back over at the hog, and it was laying down dead on its side, because my father had planted the axe from the wood pile right straight across the hog’s face.

“Boyd, what’d you do?” my daddy said after a minute.

And Boyd, why, he was grey-faced and stony, and he didn’t take his eyes from the ax handle sticking out of that hog. “I missed,” he said. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to.”

“Like hell you did,” my dad said, and he pulled the ax clear, and it made a sucking sound as it came out of the hog’s head. “You got him square on,” and we still thought he was talking about the hog. My dad tossed the ax to the ground, and came over to where I was standing, and I backed away because I was afraid of him like that.

My daddy picked up the dog, and Boyd and I exchanged a look, and I could tell Boyd was as surprised as I was. Daddy held that dog gently, cradled like a baby almost, and he hugged the dog to his chest and lifted the dog’s head. “He’s still breathing,” my father said, and he exhaled heavily, and then ran his fingertips over the place on its head where Boyd’s crutch had hit it. “He’s still alive,” my dad said, and he walked up toward the house.

Now, us three kids knew we had a dead hog to tend to, a hog to scrape and scald, and that there was a lot of work ahead of us. My father knew it too, but he left that hog there, and he carried that dog up to the house like it was one of us, like it was one of his children, only it wasn’t. He left his children down there with steam coming off the gash in the hog’s head, and Boyd crutchless, and John run over and covered in muck, and me crying so hard I had to get down off the fence, and I knelt down in the grass outside of the sty, and I’ll never forget it. I cried because I was a girl, and I’ll never forget the salty smell of tears mixed with that pig sty smell, and on top of it all, the rust smell, the iron-rich blood smell spilling from the hole in the hog’s head, and John and Boyd and I abandoned.

Now, I wonder why I remember that now, all these years later? I wonder why I think of my husband telling me I wasn’t the same as him, and my son telling me I wasn’t the same as him, and every man in between that day and this telling me that I was not a man, and that I needed to act like a woman, that I needed to be womanly, that I needed to do woman things, almost like my drinking whiskey and playing dominoes and doing whatever I damn well pleased threatened them. You know, not long after that day, the men in the Army jeeps came to tell us that we had a month to get off that land, and Mama cried and cried, cried like I did that day out at the hog pen, and she held Boyd, and held him, and held him, just like Daddy had held that fool dog. The week before they came for good, Daddy and John and I were down by the shallows at Dry Creek, leaning on the cedar fence around the family plot. I could have stayed with Mama, should have stayed with Mama, but I didn’t because I was a wild thing, and she had been nursing that dog back to health since that morning in the sty, and I couldn’t stand to hear her crying, so I was down there, too, leaning on that fence. It was one of those fences with no posts, the boards stacked in zigzags instead, and you couldn’t lean on it too hard, or the whole thing would tumble over, and we were careful even though we knew they were coming, knew that that fence didn’t have long to stand anyway. Of course, we didn’t know while we were down there that Mama had gotten a hold of John’s .410, and that that old family plot would have to make room for two more before its job was done. We heard the shots— one, two—and when we got back up to the house, it looked like Boyd was asleep with his chin on his chest, and my mother was just kneeling on his feet, just slumped across his knees, but the blood trickled away, dripped off a corner of the porch and in between the boards. We left them there, the deaths so fresh, because we knew that’s what they would have wanted.

And now I think about this, about how Mama bore Boyd being dragged near to death, and about how she bore him being expected to die from gangrene, about how all of this was somehow less upsetting than losing the land where it all happened. I think about this, and I think about how if you’re a certain thing in a certain place, then that might seem like the only place you can survive. How for some people, there might be no other place for them in the world.  How a woman and a man will both do whatever they have to do to protect the things they love, but how a man can be so brave as to be careless, and how a woman, mind made, will never miss when she aims. We left that old homestead on Dry Creek, in a part of Texas that disappeared and was never seen again, and I think well, hell. I never had a chance. I didn’t ever know anything different.

Author Portrait

Nancy Wayson Dinan earned an MFA from the Ohio State University in the spring of 2013, and currently lives outside Austin, Texas, with her husband and two small children. Her work has appeared in The Fiddleback, The Journal, and other publications. She can't resist old cemeteries and historical markers, and has been known to drive several hours for good barbecue. Her favorite pastime is getting lost on lonely highways. Her favorite direction is west, and when she gets pointed that way, she finds it difficult to turn back around and go home.