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Authors: Carolyn Osborn

Uncertain Ground

BOOK: Uncertain Ground
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is a small city on a fragile barrier island. Carolyn Osborn’s
Uncertain Ground
captures a moment in time just before Galveston must bow to the inevitable and enter the modern era. Set in 1953,
Uncertain Ground
is a snapshot of one month in the life of Celia Henderson, a small town Texas girl who has seen just enough of the world to know that there is more to life than babies and church and cattle. For this one month Celia has traded the heat and drought and cultural strait-jacket of Central Texas for the fresh Gulf winds and unrestrained lifestyle of Galveston.

With its long history of struggle against the wilder elements, both human and meteorological, Galveston is a place of cultural collision, where the Old South meets the Old West, where poverty and wealth exist side by side, and races mix more freely than elsewhere. In the 1950s, Galveston was Texas’ own Sin City—a hive of hustler and gamblers, home to the largest red light district in the state—the “place where the whole state runs off to when they want to do what they can’t do at home.”

Celia has also been saddled with keeping an eye on her hard-drinking, hard-playing cowboy cousin, Emmett. Others characters enter the picture—rich white kids, a Jamaican steel drum player, and the Mexican-American artist who will broaden Celia’s horizons more than she could ever imagine.

It is a month that pits old racial and anti-homosexual prejudices against the dawning of a more tolerant age. The sexual double standards of the time are a constant restraint that simultaneously enlighten Celia as they corral Emmett and define his future. On this uncertain ground, this island inhabited by the ghosts of pirates and the echoes of human tragedy and triumph, Celia accepts balance as a possibility in an uncertain world.

Other books by Carolyn Osborn:

A Horse of Another Color

The Fields of Memory

The Grands

Warriors & Maidens

Uncertain Ground
© 2010 by Wings Press

Cover art: Untitled watercolor © 2009 by Barbara Whitehead

First Edition
Print Edition ISBN: 978-0-916727-67-3
ePub ISBN: 978-1-60940-009-5
Kindle ISBN: 978-1-60940-010-1
PDF ISBN: 978-1-60940-011-8

Wings Press
627 E. Guenther
San Antonio, Texas 78210
Phone/fax: (210) 271-7805

On-line catalogue and ordering:
All Wings Press titles are distributed to the trade by Independent Publishers Group

      Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:

Osborn, Carolyn, 1934-

Uncertain ground: a novel / Carolyn Osborn. ‐‐ 1st ed.
    p. cm.
ISBN 978-0-916727-67-3 (pbk.: alk. paper) ‐‐ ISBN 978-1-60940-009-5
(epub: alk. paper) ‐‐ ISBN 978-1-60940-010-1 (kindle: alk. paper) ‐‐
ISBN 978-1-60940-011-8 (library pdf: alk. paper)
1. Self-realization in women‐‐Fiction. 2. Galveston Island (Tex.)‐‐Fiction.
3. Texas-History‐‐20th century‐‐Fiction. I. Title.
  PS3565.S348U53 2010


Except for fair use in reviews and/or scholarly considerations, no portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author or the publisher.

For Joe Osborn and Edward Simmen, B.O.I.


Observe always that everything is the result of a change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so. …

—Marcus Aurelius,

The nature of the soil on which Galveston is built (is) a mixture of mud and sand generally up to the ankles of the pedestrian.

The Journal of Francis Sheridan,

hen I first
saw the Mclean house again I wanted to run up the steps and bang on the front door with both fists. Being thrown forward to the present by simply turning a corner was such a shock my first impulse was anger. I’d driven there early in the morning, had set aside the time to go and see the house I’d known, so I was already seeing it in my mind, a classic late Victorian island house, narrow, its boards glistening white, two story with dark green shutters, a black wrought iron fence on two sides, and high gray painted steps leading to a small front porch with a shiny white paneled door, an entrance repeated on the west side where there was a smaller landing. Beside the west porch a large palm tree rose.

But when I drove by the west side and around the corner, I found nothing but a wreck, a hodgepodge of apartments, each with its own entrance, one in front, one on the side, probably more in back. The fence had disappeared, the high gray steps had been replaced by raw boards and unpainted railings, the green shutters were now a nasty, peeling mustard yellow, a few shingles—edged by worn gray—hung on by single nails. The palm tree, at least, still stood on the west side. The house, so marked by make-do, so changed by junky renovations, was so obviously full of other lives that I wanted to protest, to beat on the grimy front door, and at the same moment I also wanted to summon everyone I knew who’d lived there the summer of fifty-three—Bertha, Mowrey, Emmett, and the one who visited most, Luis—as if the five of us might recapture that time.

Chapter One

mmett nearly missed
the train to Galveston because he’d walked down to the corral to see a new quarter horse that had been delivered to Uncle Estes early that morning. Aunt Earlene was fuming when they finally arrived. She and Emmett had driven from the ranch near Mullin, a little bit of a town thirty miles south of Leon where we lived.

“Martha, why your brother had to have that horse sent to him this morning, and why Emmett had to go down to see it, I’ll never know!” She complained to my mother while Emmett stalked off away from us to a far corner of the platform to search for the train.

Mother smiled, “Well you know Estes and horses.”

She couldn’t bring herself to blame her youngest brother for anything, nor could she blame his son either. It wasn’t that they could do no wrong. She simply found it impossible to call them to account for whatever they did. Earlene, on the other hand, found Estes and Emmett far short of her expectations frequently. She had the look of a scold—a long face, a prominent nose, snapping dark eyes, dark hair drawn into a knot on the back of her head. Her reactions were generally exaggerated, and she was aware they were. She tried to restrain frown wrinkles by clamping her mouth shut and stretching her forehead into bland smoothness. It never worked. Whenever she attempted a placid look, she seemed about to explode from impatience.

My mother was more like her brother Estes, even-tempered, not easily angered though she could be aroused. No matter how kind she was, a special tension existed between her and Earlene, partially based on their feelings about Estes, I supposed. No matter how hard she tried, she found Earlene difficult. It wasn’t Mother’s fault that some people were more loveable than others although she often felt it was.

As for Estes and Earlene’s son, he was another matter. Mother simply acknowledged Emmett, accepted him as she accepted her brother. Earlene, on the other hand, didn’t want her son to be like his father.

I couldn’t see anything particularly wrong with Uncle Estes. He was as even-tempered as Mother and as obliging. There was a sort of sweetness about him and ease, for he tended to smile broadly as if continually affirming he found you as intelligent and agreeable as he was. And he waited to hear what other people had to say. Emmett, I understood then, was to have all his father’s virtues and more, but what else did Aunt Earlene think was necessary?

“Polish,” my mother told me, “and education. Estes only went to college two years. Earlene didn’t finish either, and she still thinks she should have.”

Emmett quit prowling the west end of the platform to join us. It was nearly ten in the morning, already hot of course. Sun beat down on the red brick depot, and intense heat rose from already over-baked earth marking another long day of drought. We waited outside in the deep shade of the porch’s high arches. Aunt Earlene and Emmett had been up since five, at least, since they were meeting us at the nearest Santa Fe station, about twenty miles south of Leon in Temple. Getting out of the middle of Texas required way too much time, I thought. Emmett was used to driving for miles to get anywhere, but he wasn’t in a good humor that morning; neither was I, but I was hiding my dismal mood. I even took a certain pride in not letting anyone know how I was feeling. Emmett’s display was enough.

“I told you we had plenty of time, Mama. I haven’t even heard a train yet, much less seen one. I bet it’s three counties west of here still, and there you are standing out in the heat.”

“Emmett, I don’t care if it’s four counties away. We can catch the Santa Fe here only on Mondays and Thursdays. I’d rather be a little early than miss it, wouldn’t you?”

He stomped toward the end of the platform again; since he had on his boots, we could hear him easily. He was also wearing
a pair of twill pants and a white shirt that Earlene must have made him put on. Left to himself he’d never wear anything but boots, jeans, and the nearest plaid shirt. At least that’s all I usually saw him in.

“He can’t stand being crossed about anything,” Earlene commented. “He’d rather miss a train than be wrong.”

So had she, not that I would tell her. Aunt Earlene was a force, one to be contradicted or evaded. If you voiced disagreement, you were in for a long fight. Emmett had decided it wasn’t worth it that morning. I kept my mouth shut while Emmett kept his distance.

Mother tried distracting her by mentioning the sales in Waco. They were both great shoppers. Though they preferred the Dallas stores, Waco was a lot nearer and not to be overlooked.

In five minutes more, the train had pulled up, heat shimmering in waves against its silvery cars. A porter helped me on while Earlene hollered for Emmett who’d circled back from the platform and disappeared inside the station.

He ambled out as if he were going nowhere in particular, as if there wasn’t a train in front of him, stooped to allow his mother to kiss his cheek, and letting his suitcase bump his leg, climbed in the passenger car. Once on board, he settled next to me on the scratchy seat in his usual slouch. I got up and went across the aisle to wave goodbye to Mother and Earlene.

As we pulled away from the station, I turned back to Emmett. “You’re not happy about this trip I see.”

“Celia, don’t you know I’m being sent?”

“You’d rather stay in the middle of Texas in August when you could be down at the coast?” Escaping summer heat, if only for a little while, was considered a necessity in my family.

“Yeah.” He turned toward the window to look at the outskirts as we moved out of town. I couldn’t find much of interest, but Emmett maintained it looked different from the train.

He had dark hair like his mother, olive-skin like Estes and Mother. Beyond that he was himself, good looking, I supposed,
if a little sullen at the moment. He had deep brown eyes and wide set lips that could widen into a smile as generous as his father’s. It was odd to be sitting next to him. Unless it was a ceremonial occasion such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, I generally saw him outside on horseback riding off with my brother, Kenyon, or leaning against a corral fence behind his house at the ranch. He lived way out in the country west of Mullin, went to a different high school and a different college; mine was UT while his was A&M. I saw him infrequently and, except for family gatherings, mainly as a lanky, restless figure in the landscape. When he came inside he grew awkward and uncomfortable. He bumped into tables, knocked against door frames, sometimes leaned against pictures on the wall, and continually nudged floor lamps and coffee tables until someone, usually his mother, reminded him he needed to avoid them. No matter where he was in a house, there wasn’t quite enough room for him.

BOOK: Uncertain Ground
11.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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