“Spectacular . . . Like a painter, Steinke draws stunning scenes of small town Texas life: Ranch houses. Friday night football games. Church fundraisers. Like Sherwood, Ohio or Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, Friendswood is also a vision of modern American life . . . Ultimately a story about hope and American character . . . one of the best books of the summer.”—Patrik Henry Bass, NY1
"Years after an oil refinery’s toxic chemicals have caused death and illness among the residents of a fictional Texas hamlet, the affected families struggle to move on. Then a real estate tycoon lobbies to rebuild homes on the abandoned site, and the neighbors clash over money, justice, and the truth about this mysterious tract of land."—Woman's Day
One of those evenings, before they knew, Lee walked past the Clarks’ ranch house, as sunlight shattered through the leaves overhead. The fan of a lawn sprinkler bowed down again in the green yard, and a few drops dotted her shoulder. Jess ran in front, dark hair splayed against the narrow back of her shirt, sneakers snapping against the concrete. Lee followed her around the bend, where the Bordens had planted an orange plastic Texas on a wooden stake right there in the garden among the marigolds. In the flat distance, another crop plane droned low in the sky, a silver spray trailing behind it, though nothing grew out where the refinery used to be.
Jess waited at the stop sign. She was twelve, and her teeth seemed too big for her delicate mouth, her arms extra long, as if they grew ahead of the rest of her skinny body. “It’s okay, right?”
“We figured, yes,” said Lee. “But, listen, don’t show off, just ride the horse like you’ve practiced.”
“I don’t know why he worries. I’m a good rider—Dad knows that.” Jess took her hand, and Lee held some lost part of herself just returned.
“Yeah,” said Lee. “But let’s not push it.”
They turned the corner, and the sunset spread before them, two spar- rows perched on a fence, radio jangling out from someone’s window. In
one yard, a man stood holding a garden hose that shot at a row of hedges; his white T-shirt glowed phosphorescent in the dimness, as if he were trying hard not to disappear.
“Can we hurry it up?” said Jess. They walked over the footbridge, over the cold, steely noise of crickets. On their street, Jess let go of her hand and ran around to the back of the neighbor’s house, where the horse was tied to the gate. Lee called after her, “I’ll be out there in a minute.”
At home, Lee found Jack in the kitchen, smoking by the open window, squinting, face turned to the bright orange sun. They’d made up in bed that afternoon, but she was afraid, when he saw Jess on that horse, that he might get angry again. “I like that dress,” he said, eyeing her.
“It’s not a dress, it’s a skirt.” “Whatever.” He smiled.
She went over and touched his forearm, kissed his sweaty, stubbled cheek. “You smell good.”
“It’s a wonder what a bath will do.” He pulled his shirt away from his chest and fanned himself a little. “Hot though.” He sighed, tapped his ashes into the sink. “Let’s go on outside then, I guess.”
With that limp he wore as a strut, Jack went to set up the lawn chairs in the backyard. She took off her shoes to feel her feet in the grass, and she looked out at Banes Field, scrub weeds and stooped trees. The old, defunct refinery still stood there, as if there might be some reward in the futility of it; the small plane flew low now above the flat warehouse and white cylinder oil tank. From here, she couldn’t see the perimeters of Banes Field, only some of the other houses whose backyards ran along this edge. And though the whole block shared a nearness to Banes Field, she could still pretend that she and Jack were the owners of it.
Jack fell into the chair beside hers, handed her a beer. His face was shiny and tired, wet blue ovals in the underarms of his shirt.
He winced, leaned back into the yawn of plastic chair. “I’m nervous.” She tapped her ring against the glass of the bottle. “It’ll be fine.”
From behind the slope, their daughter emerged on the black horse, loose shirttail blowing, and her silhouette melded to the animal’s, a sober, elegant loping against the sky.
She slapped Jack’s leg. “Will you look at that?”
He craned his head to see. Jess could ride well now, but she was taking it slow. The neighbor girl Rachel was out there guiding the reins before she stepped away, red hair blown up in the breeze. Jess, her body so small against the vast brown field, took the horse into a canter, circled back, and waved at them.
Lee took Jack’s hand, rubbed her thumb over his calloused palm. She’d won him over again, but it was better not to gloat.
“Hey there!” Cal McHugh called over the low hedge that split his yard from theirs.
“Hey yourself!” Jack sat up and tilted his bottle in Cal’s direction. Lee could see the citronella candles lit up on tall black stakes over the patio, where Lisa walked out, barefoot in a purple dress, carrying amber highballs.
The unkempt yard on the other side of Lee and Jack’s was bound by a short wooden fence with hand-sized holes in it. Rachel’s sisters ran out to the edge of the property in their nightgowns, screaming, “Jess!” One of them pulled a pink plastic wagon, jiggling with rocks. Another trailed a doll with electrified hair.
Farther away, two houses beyond, in the yard Lee couldn’t quite see, a party started to gather at the Turners’, laughing and shouting, dim music cartwheeling over in the dusk. The air was cool now, the sun fallen to that slant that nearly gilded the brown grass in the field. Jess took the horse into a gallop, turned, and disappeared behind the warehouse, then appeared and disappeared behind the tall metal poles that looked like pistons.
Lee glanced at Jack’s face, the tense cords in his neck. “She’ll be alright.”
She could see, next door, the McHughs watching Jess too, but casually. Cal lit a cigarette, opened the lid of the grill, and Lisa stood behind him, chatting at the back of his head.
Out in the field, Jess galloped in a shot from behind the warehouse, her small body leaning over the horse’s strained neck. Lee was proud of how she’d learned to handle her stride and the reins. Jess patted the horse’s neck, and it slowed down, turning, head gradually more heavy, somber, nodding yes to its pace.
Down the block at the Turners’, over the party’s murmur, a man started to sing loudly, “All I’m taking is your time.” Jess rode toward them, smiling. Her dark hair, unwashed and dull, fell awkwardly against her round, flushed face. She looked triumphant and exhausted, her torso slumped toward the huge saddle, the reins held close to her chest. She rode right up to the azaleas and bellflowers in the garden, bowed her head, and the McHughs applauded.
Later, Lee and Jack would wander over to the Turners’ party, and Lee, a little drunk, would stroll into the field and look up at the moon’s scribbled design. From where she stood in the vast dark, the stars pinning down the night, the long weeds up to her knees, she could hear Jack’s balmy laughter.
It was an evening that would melt into the summer, calm, humid, and expansive. The air did not yet smell of dead lemons. The red and blue sores hadn’t yet appeared on anyone’s neck. The black snakes hadn’t wriggled up from the ground. And she had no idea that this world was not without an end.
It was sunny again for the first time in days, and light mirrored off all the wet surfaces. Post-storm, people drove slowly, though traffic was sparse. Here and there fallen branches and toppled road signs lay on either side of the road, but things were getting back to normal. She drove past the empty elementary school, past the ball fields, where a set of bleachers had collapsed. Up ahead, the Mexican restaurant looked intact, but a telephone pole had blown down in front of it, the wire crossed over the white face of the building. A fire engine sirened at the corner, swerved its long red body to the left, and she turned in its wake down Sunrise Drive, past the car dealer’s mansion, and past the high school, where a man stood at the pole, stringing up the f lag again. She came to the stop- light, and turned onto the business strip.
At the peaked roof of the Methodist church, the cross tilted like a weather vane. donations here read the hand-lettered sign. She parked in the driveway, took the old quilts and blankets out of her trunk, and walked into the lush wet grass. A bedraggled man sat at a card table, next to a hodgepodge of furniture and stacks of canned goods. The man’s face was jowly and flushed, and though she didn’t know his name, she recognized him from Rosemont. He’d been a friend of her old neighbor, Sy Turner.
“Here you go,” she said, setting down the blankets.
“I sure do thank you.” He was flipping through the pages of a Bible without looking down, a fidgeting gesture like shuffling a deck of cards. “I got a family or two could use those about right now.”
“Empire Estates.” He shook his head. “Right up against the creek. It’ll be a long time before some of them get to live over there again.”
“Well.” She was afraid he might start reciting Scripture. “Glad to help.” It had been ten years since they’d had to abandon Rosemont; she wasn’t surprised he didn’t remember her, but she didn’t want to remind him either. “You need any furniture?”
“We got folks that need everything.” He opened the Bible, closed his eyes a moment, and pointed at a spot on the page. “Here you go.” He read, “‘Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God.’ Romans thirteen. That’s yours for the day.”
“Hmm,” she said.
“Chosen just for you, no extra charge.”
She got back in the car and drove to the other side of town, marking the damage, the WELCOME TO FRIENDSWOOD sign blown down, the roof vanished from the German bakery, gray water flooding the low-lying parking lot of the bank. During the two days of storm, her TV still had reception, so she’d been able to follow the news—the hysterical, windy frames of rain and destruction—and when that exhausted her, she read the old paperbacks she’d had on the shelf, a few sayings of Emerson, and then a biography of Loretta Lynn that took all of her concentration as the wind lashed through the trees. She’d stared at the dark glass in the windowpanes, not fearful—because what could touch her now—but waiting, as the body of the world thrashed around her.
Inside McCall Hardware, it was crowded, and the line at the register was long, people holding boxes of nails, aluminum siding, hammers, and sump pumps. On a low shelf next to a stack of orange gardening gloves, she found a good hand shovel with a pointed tip, and went to pay. In line in front of her, there was Doc, fit and buoyant, his face cheerfully smudged with a day’s growth of beard. “Glad to see you all in one piece.”
“Told you I was.” He’d called her seven times during the storm, worried about her alone in her house.
“Well, now I can believe it,” he said. When Jack left her, Doc had offered her the job at the office and became her protector, though he had his own wife and son. “You know a worm is the only animal that can’t fall down.”
“Okay, okay, I’m not a worm. But I’m alright. I just lost the shed out back.”
“Alright then. Us? We’ve got to pull up carpeting.” He held up a flat, razored tool. “When we got up this morning, there were all these dead little frogs in the living room, but that’s about it. We’re lucky.” So close to the coast, they were used to hurricanes, but this had been one of the worst.
The man at the counter started shouting at someone behind them. “You looking for a dehumidifier? We’re all out. Try a box fan. Got more of those than you can shake a stick at.”
“Listen,” Doc said. “Take the week off. We’re going to have a heap of cancellations anyway.”
She’d actually been looking forward to work, to the escape from the swirl of her own thoughts. “Are you sure?”
Doc’s eyes had melancholy circles under them. “Absolutely.” He pat- ted her shoulder, went to pay at the counter, and waved good-bye. She was glad he didn’t ask about the shovel.
Where Crystal Creek had run over the road, she was afraid the high- way might be shut down, but it was open again, at least as far as the exit. She turned onto the dirt road, her car pitching over craters, and saw that the big oak tree had snapped in half, the naked interior of the trunk left jagged and pale, its leafy branches sprawled out along the ground. Before the Rosemont houses had been torn down, there were men monitoring the site all the time, and even for a year or two after that. Now it was just Lee, the unofficial guardian, filling up empty, sterilized jelly jars with dirt.
As she got closer, Tubb Gully was swollen all the way to the road’s shoulder, and brown water lapped at the wheels of her car. Further on, even a half mile from Banes Field, rotting wooden signs with weathered paint were posted along the chain-link fence: CONTAMINANTS DANGER and NO TRESPASSING.
She’d already trespassed a dozen times in broad daylight. The last time she’d been chased off the property by a speeding white truck. Taft Properties—and the city—didn’t want her taking soil samples from Banes Field, but Professor Samuels said that after so many days of rain and the rise in the water table, there was a good chance the soil would show a tip in the toxin readings, and that was reason enough to try.
The fifty-eight acres were divided by Tubb Gully, weeds and the old equipment on one side, overgrown woods on the other, where, along with the batting cage and dugouts of a Little League field, there were still a few abandoned homes left standing. Lee kept to this unwooded side of Tubb Gully, closer to where they’d buried the chemicals years ago in a number of truck-sized vinyl containers, no better than giant Tupperware, really.
When she came to the hole in the locked gate, she parked the car. She grabbed the new shovel, the canvas bag with the camera, glass jars, and a map of Banes Field. She got out of the car and went to the gate, which was chained, but only loosely. She squeezed her frame through the opening where the end of the fence bent back, her breasts and hips just grazing the rusted metal as she pushed through. Inside, the field was muddy, the weeds pounded f lat. The white tank stood about a half mile away, surrounded by metal pistons and pipes.
That day years ago, when she’d first seen the oily sludge come up out of the grass, she’d thought it was a snake. She’d rushed inside the house, found Jess doing homework at the table. “Don’t go outside,” she’d said. “Stay here.”
Today the ground was so soft that her boots weighed down with mud, and she had to slow her pace. Clouds rushed overhead. Closer to the warehouse, there was a thin gasoline smell, and the mud had an oily, purple sheen.
The dull exterior of the warehouse was spray-painted TEX in orange and jay loves ruby in black, the walkway along the edge glittering with broken green glass. Nothing was inside, but they’d left it standing, some secret business still fuming, and the white truck that chased her the last time had seemed to come from the back of the building. She stopped at the tank, a rusted cylinder thirty yards around, patched in places with green mold. A squirrel ran up the ladder on one side. A few black birds perched at the curve of the top, looking out.
Somewhere nearby, a dog was barking. She went on, pulling her feet up high to get through deeper mud, her boots and the hems of her jeans caked in it. Finally, she came to the slope where the weeds grew up to her shoulders. She pressed through the stalks and leaves to another chain- link fence, this one cut open. As she made her way through the loose wire tines, they tore a hole in her shirt. She jumped down the incline.
About a hundred more yards through dandelions and spear weeds, the remnants of old Rosemont splayed across the land and into the trees, all the ruins of her old neighborhood, knitted into the foliage. Bits of cement and pipes lay across the weeds and brush beneath orphaned telephone poles and lampposts.
She followed the cement rain gutter that had once run alongside Crest Street. A dingy fire hydrant squatted in a patch of yellow wildflowers, a streetlight hooked over a wild-haired bush, and farther on, ten yards of old asphalt ran through the weeds. She spotted the shell of an ancient air conditioner with a bird’s nest on top of it, and a rusted metal rectangle on the ground that claimed no parking beyond this point. She stepped off the asphalt back into the mud.
A decade ago, just before they’d razed most of the houses—a leftover sign sat in Fred Borden’s yard: FOR SALE, 2-2-2, WITH 45 PLUS KNOWN TOXIC CHEMICALS AT NO EXTRA CHARGE. A security guard trolled the empty streets in a golf cart, windows mostly boarded up, doors padlocked shut.
Now, at the edge of the woods where Autumn Street would have been, a square steel frame clung to cement, what was left of someone’s house, and an ancient garage freezer tilted against a tree, its door swung open. This used to be her block.
On one of her early visits back here, inside a piece of door and marking the crumbled remains of her own house, she’d found the clover brass knocker. What else was left: a stump of brick chimney attached to a slab of concrete, three small stone steps that had once led to the front door. But nearly each time she came back, she found a different artifact in the ruins—an old beer bottle, a plastic lawn elf, a chair.
She stepped up through the red thorns and down again into weeds of the entryway, past the living room of grass and cinder block, and then she stood in her kitchen, where yellow weeds with sticky f lowers clung to her jeans. She looked out where there used to be a window. The air had a kind of empty commotion. Over where the laundry room had been, she noticed a few birds, grayer than the old pipe where they’d landed, pecking at the cement. She felt the old upstairs ghosted above her, the bed where she’d slept with Jack, and Jess’s bedroom with its window overlooking the street.
In front of her, the oak tree she’d planted for Jess when she was a baby was strangely still alive, perfectly shaped like one you’d see drawn in bright colors in a children’s book, its leaves green and healthy. Jess as a toddler used to walk around its base, saying, “Hear those birds?”
She’d let Jess and her friends run all over that field, even as far as the warehouse when they were older. Cows would sometimes wander over— the grass yellow and dry in summer and winter, only green in the spring— where Jess found odd bits of pipe, fluorescent colored scraps of rubber, tiny pink pebbles the size of coarsely grained salt, which she brought home with her in her pockets.
Jess would say, “I’m heading out, Mom,” and she’d run, barefoot, through the door. That ugly field had seemed benign for so many years, fooling everyone with its open space and common weeds, its sorry- looking stooped trees.
She hadn’t eaten since morning and felt weak, but the sun was lowering over the trees now, and there wasn’t much time. As she made her way to the other side of Banes Field, the ground slid beneath her steps. The dog was still barking, though it didn’t seem to have come any closer. She went through the first gate and down the slope that led to the land Taft Properties had bought.
It was now marked out for construction with small wooden survey stakes topped with orange plastic f lags. They stood out against the brown grass like bright artificial goldfish. Unbelievable. He didn’t even have a permit yet, and the land had already been surveyed. Taft claimed that this area didn’t have the same limitations as the land beneath Rosemont, but even Lee knew that soil fifty feet underground had subterranean movement. The chemicals could still leach to the surface even here.
She pulled out the jars and the shovel from her bag, bent down, cleared a section of weeds away, dug a shallow hole, and filled the jar with soil. Twenty feet in the other direction, she bent down, dug a hole about eight inches deep, and filled another jar. The mud was even deeper in parts of this section, and some of the survey stakes had toppled. She went on working, all around her the wet, dead grass, the chaotic bushes, the past pressing down from the sky.
There was a voice she heard in her head, sometimes with Jack’s into- nations, sometimes with Jess’s. “Time to leave.” She wanted to get a sample near a bald spot in the middle of the gray weeds. A wasp droned close to her, and she f lung her hand to hit it away, but it got close to her face, buzzed against her cheek, then looped and stitched back. Wincing, she f licked her hand again and stumbled. The wasp flew off.
Then she saw the thing about twenty yards away, as big as the bed of a pickup truck. The gray corner angled up from the mud beneath a sick- looking sapling. Was it some lost bit of cement? She went closer, her boots smacking in the muck as the dull shape clarified itself. One flat side of it had wrestled up into the air, the other side still sunk into the ground. A giant, filthy, gray vinyl box. The top of it was charred with a bright pink and brown stain, and a crack jiggered its way down the middle, where a copper liquid leaked out in a thin, jagged stream. Her heart punched in her chest. Back in January, Professor Samuels had said this could happen, though it had seemed so unlikely then. “You get enough rain, it shifts the water table—it can pop a container right up.”
And there it was. For years, the container had been safe down there, but now the land had excreted it, the way coffins sometimes came back up in a flood. Her head filled with pressure. In the distance, the pine trees seemed to lean forward. She smelled something acidic and bitter, benzene fumes or worse, and covered her nose and mouth with one hand as she took the camera from her bag with the other. The light was already going, but she’d get the picture somehow. She pressed the button to open the lens.
This was the thing she’d been waiting for, but didn’t know how to name, the thing that would redeem her. Over the woods, the sun, a bright orange candy set on fire, dangled. She snapped the photographs. The dog barked again. She took twenty-two pictures of the upturned container. Then she ran.