Texon, Texas was in southwestern Reagan County 319 miles east of El Paso. Oliver made the drive in about seven hours in his 1929 Model A pickup, stopping once to refuel. He was early for his interview, so he parked outside the cafe and went in for a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
The bell jingled over the door, and he slid into a booth by the window. The waitress came over and smiled at him, but she had a bit of bright red lipstick on her teeth, and there was something distracted about the way she was looking at him.
“What can I get for you?”
He ordered, and she vanished into the kitchen. A Texon Oilers baseball jersey hung behind the counter. Outside the window the town was clean and bustling, women coming in and out of the dry goods store or the tailor, hands alternating between empty and full.
The waitress set his coffee down. “You a ballplayer?”
“Only reason I ask is because you’re new around here. And I know Mr. Smith is bringing in fellas who can play. They work on the rigs and play ball for the town on the weekends. Did you see the stadium on your way in? Nice big grandstand and everything.”
He nodded politely and took a sip of his coffee.
The waitress came back with his sandwich. “So what does bring you to Texon? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Interviewing for a job with Big Lake Oil. With Mr. Smith, I suppose.” There was still something not quite right about her, or the town for that matter. It was as if a little bit of color had been leached away by the surrounding desert.
“Well, good luck.” She smiled, revealing lipstick. “Mr. Smith is the president, so he’s awful busy. You sure you’ve never played baseball?”
Oliver shook his head and ate his BLT in silence, listening to the low hum of conversation around him. A few tables over two women were speaking in heated whispers. One of them slammed her palm on the table. “I don’t believe it!” The other woman shushed her.
At the boarding house, the matron showed him to his room. “What do you know about oil, Mr. Grand?”
“I did some drilling before the Crash.”
She hummed as she threw open the curtains, letting light peer in. “Well, we’ve got two big sources pumping, the Big Lime and the Ellenburger Lime. A whole bunch of wells. Plenty of work to go around.”
“Seems like a nice town,” said Oliver.
“Oh, it’s lovely. Mr. Smith takes care of us. They’re even putting up a bowling alley down on San Jacinto. Things are moving fast.”
The matron bustled downstairs, and Oliver put down his bag. There was something a little off about her, too, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. It was as if she was listening for something in the next room, straining her ears for a sound that wasn’t there. Distraction.
On his way to the interview Oliver Grand drove past the church. A few beat-up looking farmers were sitting on the steps, hats in hand. It wasn’t unusual these days, but there was something incongruous about the sight in the whitewashed, joyful heat of the town.
Past the church there was a golf course, artificial emerald green piercing the yellow air, and past the golf course the land opened up and the ever-present smell of oil began to hang heavily in Oliver’s nose. Black, shimmering wells churned in the distance. But when he reached the main office, a small two-room structure surrounded by a field of towering storage tanks, the secretary turned him away.
“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Grand, but Mr. Smith is indisposed. There’s a bit of a problem.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I’m not at liberty to say,” she said, glancing at the office door.
“Now, I drove seven hours to get here. I think I deserve a better excuse than that.”
A fan flicked back and forth on the windowsill. The secretary looked at him, eyes cutting through the hot air, and lowered her voice slightly. “It’s the ranchers.”
“What about them?”
“They’re claiming our wastewater is ruining their grazing land.”
“Of course not, Mr. Grand.” Her armor went back up. “Now, allow me to pencil you in—shall we say next Wednesday at 3 PM?”
“I’d like to be reimbursed for fuel.”
“I’m sure Mr. Smith will be amenable.”
Oliver left, the machinery of the wells ticking on around him, men scurrying like ants, shouting into the wind. In town the ranchers were still on the church steps, frozen in the heat. Dust had found its way into every crevice of his clothes; by the time he got back to the boarding house he was dying for a shower. But once he stripped down he noticed a stain in the center of the tub, a black patch of mold oozing from the drain.
He got dressed quickly and called the matron up to have a look. She was as distracted as before, but when he pointed out the offending area she looked at him, brow furrowed with focus, and said, “Oh, that’s natural, Mr. Grand. Won’t do you a bit of harm.”
He hesitated, too polite to say anything.
“Well, if you insist,” she said primly, taking a rag from the pocket of her dress to scrub the stain away.
But when she was gone the outline lingered, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to step into the tub. Instead he went to lie down, and he was just drifting into the beginnings of a nap when there was a sharp knock at the door.
The secretary was waiting outside. “Mr. Smith sent me,” she said. “One of our roughnecks got hurt. How good are you with a chain?”
“Good enough,” said Oliver, distracted.
Wilson R. M. Taylor writes poetry and fiction, often inspired by Texas and New York City. His work appears in The Scarlet Leaf Review, Literary Yard, The Ekphrastic Review, and The Merrimack Review.