He hadn’t meant to laugh at her, he’d only been going along with the other men. He’d seen her earlier that morning, stretching before her run. She took her time, unaware that she was being observed. She looked strong; her muscled legs and broad back and long arms that reached over head then arced down to her feet as if in prayer. She finished stretching and opened her face to the sky before she started a slow jog away from him. She was beautiful.
When she appeared later, coming down the street much faster than he might imagine she could run, she took his breath. Then she clumsily crossed the street and he saw her face redden and the laugh stuck in his throat. He looked at his worn boots and his calloused hands and knew the hardness of his face and did not fault her for crossing.
His father named him Cole, and it suited him. His mother had wanted to call him Jeremiah and in denying her the name, Cole’s father cut the tenuous thread that kept their marriage together. His mother packed her belongings and left before dawn six months after he was born. She took the dog and left the child.
Cole and his father lived in a rented house at the edge of a small West Texas town. They were white men in a town of brown men, and Cole learned early on to blend in. His father went to work on the oil rigs before Cole left for school and came home after he’d gone to bed, if he came home at all. Cole fixed himself suppers of beans and cornbread, leaving a bowl loosely covered with a tea towel for his father on the the kitchen table. His father was never a father, and Cole was never a boy. They were simply men who lived with different sized versions of themselves.
His father taught him to work hard and long hours, to build a ridge of callous on the palms of his hands, the hallmark of manual labor. Cole was a decent student, but inconspicuous; boys teased the smart kids mercilessly. Everyone knew they’d never leave town, and to aspire to something greater than drilling foreman on a rig was to invite ridicule. He harbored a secret love of books, smuggled home under his jacket and read by flashlight under the covers of his bed.
When he was 12, Cole started going with his father to the rig in the early morning, before school. He worked all day through the summers and over Christmas break. By the time he was 15, he was a floorhand, picking up slack from the roughnecks and fetching coffee and cigarettes for the derrickman. The men gave him grief and his father cuffed his head at every opportunity, but they liked him. He kept his mouth shut and eyes open and saw his future, crude stained and hard.
It wouldn’t be a bad life, and he resigned himself to it.
One day when he was 17, six months from graduating high school and taking a full time job on the rig, he was met at his front door by the derrickman, hat in hand. His father was dead, crushed by a falling pipe rack. Cole clutched the copy of The Grapes of Wrath he held under his jacket as the derrickman said, “I’m sorry, son.” He never finished the book.
After the funeral, he walked home and packed a small suitcase. He tucked his father’s pocketknife and silver belt buckle and best boots in among his clothes. He cashed the small check from the drilling company, and found another thousand dollars bound by rubber bands in his father’s sock drawer.
Cole walked to the bus station and slid fifty-six dollars through the window to a woman the color of old newspaper. “I guess you know where you’re going,” she said.
He did not hesitate in his answer.