Harvester Good

The sun wasn’t even up when Trent Loter returned from the kitchen with another Diet Mountain Dew. He drank seven cans of the stuff a day, but this morning he was putting them back with purpose. That’s because it was the first week of August, the start of two-a-days, and for the equipment manager of the Pampa High Fighting Harvesters, that meant going back to work. 

On this week for the past 26 years, Trent had risen before dawn and reported for morning practice. The last 13 of those years had been spent here at the “football house,” a tiny two-bedroom located half a block from the high school, where he and his parents returned each season. The rest of the year he simply endured at his family’s home in Pottsboro, near Lake Texoma, waiting for the whistles of August to blow and put him back in rhythm. He popped the top on the Mountain Dew and flipped to the Weather Channel. 

Trent was a man of ritual and routine but also a man of obsessions. His older sister, Shannon, joked that his life revolved around three things: high school football, church, and the weather. In fact, he wouldn’t walk to the high school in the mornings without knowing exactly how the skies were going to behave. His mother blamed it on growing up in Tornado Alley—or, specifically, on June 8, 1995, when the biggest twister in Pampa’s history hit the west side of town. Trent and Shannon hid in the closet as the sirens wailed outside. The tornado ended up missing them, but to this day, the sound of thunder agitated him, and he refused to go outside if there was a hint of lightning. 

This morning, he stared down the television until the local forecast scrolled across the screen: another sunny and windy day in the Panhandle. His eyes softened. “All clear, buddy,” he said.

Out in the living room, his mother and father were up having coffee. Ann and Lonnie Loter were both 73 and in good health. Lonnie had a mop of white hair and a slow, easy manner. For 35 years he’d pulled shift work at the local chemical plant before giving it up to fish. Now he busied himself with running trotlines for catfish on calm Texoma mornings—something that would have to wait another few months. 

Ann was spry and full of energy, even at dawn. She appeared at Trent’s door to check on his progress. “How we coming along?” she asked, already knowing the answer, for how many times had she asked that question on this very same morning?

“Good, Mom. I’ll be out in a minute.” 

He was shirtless, and the glow of the television threw light on his middle-aged body. He stood five feet four, with broad shoulders and a soft, pear-shaped stomach. His hair was dark brown, except for a splotch of gray just above his forehead. A thin goatee, peppered with white, added ten years to a round, boyish face. He had tiny ears that lay flat against his skull, a small nose, and a wide forehead.

His bedroom was a living museum dedicated to the high school he had graduated from, in 1992. Green-and-gold banners covered the wood-paneled walls along with varsity schedules and team photos of seasons past—with him smiling in the back row of each picture, surrounded by a different cast of characters. His letter jacket hung from a chair, along with a T-shirt that read, “Real Men Wear Green”—one of the 65 Harvesters shirts currently in his collection. He put on a gray shirt with “Pampa” spelled in green letters and carefully tucked it into his denim shorts. He placed a gold Harvesters cap on his head, then turned his attention to a Red Raiders duffel bag on the bed.

“I put my things in here for work,” he said, adding in the same breath, “Shannon went to Texas Tech. She takes me to games.” 

The items for his bag were neatly arranged on the bed. The first was Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, the highly regarded preview magazine that over the years had become a sacred and holy text. The magazine featured four hundred pages of summaries, notes, and roster breakdowns for the more than 1,400 high school teams in the state, and its release was more anticipated in the Loter household than Christmas. Trent studied its pages for hours and carried the latest copies nearly everywhere he went. His closet was filled with boxes of back issues, dating to the eighties, when Ray Childress and Jackie Sherrill graced the covers.

During his 26 years with the game, Trent had memorized the mascots for nearly every high school in the state, from the Carthage Bulldogs to the Dell City Cougars, from the Demons of Dumas down to the Panthers of Weslaco. His talent was well-known throughout Pampa. Men approached him at ball games and in coffee shops to try to stump him, but few could. Along with the high schools and their mascots, Trent had memorized the counties where they were located in addition to their seats of government. So if you lobbed something at him like Slaton High, which Lonnie did that morning, he could tell you Tigers, from South Lubbock—which, of course, was located in Lubbock County. 

“That’s a easy one, fishin’ buddy,” he said.

Since the latest issue of Dave Campbell’s wouldn’t hit newsstands for another two weeks, Trent was reading one from 2004, which he now placed in his bag alongside his tattered Bible. The giant-print King James Version was about fifteen years old and so thoroughly used that its spine dangled loose. Inside, Trent had marked 2 Corinthians with sheets of wide-ruled paper, onto which he’d meticulously copied chapters 1 through 23 by hand. He’d been copying the Bible for years. His mother didn’t know how long it took for him to finish the whole book. Just that when he did, he tossed the pages into the garbage and started again. 

After packing his Bible and football magazine, Trent threw in a yellowed county map of Texas and two fresh legal pads, which he pulled from a cache in the closet. He then zipped the bag closed and walked into the living room. Ann and Lonnie were sitting down reading but leaped up when Trent appeared. “All set to go?” Ann asked. 

Trent kind of grunted and pointed to his sneakers. Without looking, Ann said, “Let me give ’em a good tying.” After his mother had finished—“Ready, Freddy!”—his father tugged at the bill of his cap, smiled, then gently touched his son’s face. 

“Have fun today,” he said. 

Trent waved, tossed the bag over his shoulder, and stepped out into the dawn, where the crown of Harvester Field towered in the distance.

Pampa_Trent-Loter-with-his-family.-Credit--Wyatt-McSpadden_680
Trent at the “football house” with Ann, Lonnie, and Shannon. (Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden) 

No. 8 Woman Hollering Creek (1991)

Cisneros wasn’t born in Texas, but her rendering of the rasquache Tex-Mex vernacular is pitch-perfect in this short-story collection, which appeared just seven years after she arrived in San Antonio. Anchored in Mexico and Texas, these stories read like lapidary poems, telling of romance, revenge, carnal and spiritual longing, and whimsy.

Against the Canon

As a writer born in San Antonio, I have always felt myself anointed, or perhaps branded, by the conflicted literary legacies of the Lone Star State. I was never sure whether my origins—as a descendant of eighteenth-century Spanish expeditionary settlers and Revolución-era norteño immigrants and a mestizo heir of storytellers as diverse as Américo Paredes, Katherine Anne Porter, and Hondo Crouch—were truly a blessing of birthplace, a karmic serendipity of sorts, or, given Texas’s fraught history of ethnic and racial discord, exclusion, and violence, a Tejano version of the mark of Cain. 

It’s this uncertainty that has compelled much of my work, and it’s this same uncertainty that informs my thoughts whenever I consider the Texas literary canon. That a canon of Texas literature notionally exists cannot be denied; J. Frank Dobie first made the case for one in 1943 with his Guide to Life and Literature in the Southwest, and it was the pantheon of Texas literati that later inspired Larry McMurtry’s curmudgeonly takedown of our letters in his essays “Southwestern Literature?” (1968) and “Ever a Bridegroom” (1981). The canon has been explored in the pages of this magazine by such distinguished Texas writers as A. C. Greene, who in 1981 put forth a list of the fifty best Texas books (including one Hispanic writer), and Don Graham, who ventured a more-modest twenty contemporary exemplars (including two Hispanos). Many of the state’s great universities still offer courses of study in the tradition. 

But in an ever more diverse and burgeoning Texas, exactly which books merit inclusion, and how such a canonical list might be serially ranked, will vary vastly from reader to reader. In part, it depends on what kind of personal history you bring to the reading table. There isn’t a single defensible canon, in other words—and that dismissal isn’t meant as a wet relativist’s dodge or an indication of any wariness about getting caught in the ensuing crossfire. It’s only that, as a reader or a writer, your list will be as much a reflection of who you are, and who you are becoming as a Texan, as any meaningful assertion of an objective pantheon. The age of the authoritative canonical pronouncement has passed, güey. Instead, we’re called to venture our own lists and be ready to argue for them. That’s always been where the sparks can really fly.

In that spirit, I have considered my own peripatetic readings and devised my list—a list that, to my mind, represents a way to plumb the deep human mystery of Texas. Hence, my litany of titles, top ten and beyond, tacks toward a “deep time” perspective, reaching back to commence the saga in remotest antiquity, more aligned to nonfiction than fiction, more to history than reportage, more oneiric than factual, less overtly political than cultural, with an abiding fealty to the paranormal and poetic. I’m less fussy about sniffing out the truffle of ageless literary excellence à la McMurtry than I am keen to find those books that, side by side, limn the improbable, contradictory human epic that is the grand story of Texas.

READ JOHN PHILLIP SANTOS'S LIST OF THE 10 BEST TEXAS BOOKS EVER WRITTEN.

My family’s history wasn’t exactly literary, much less conventionally Texan. My mother’s ancestors were already long in northern New Spain when they joined José de Escandón’s mid-eighteenth-century expeditions as founders of the villages of Revilla and Camargo, in present-day Tamaulipas. By the time my mother was born, in the twenties, the family was in Laredo, another of Escandón’s settlements. My father’s family fled Coahuila in 1914, when the Mexican Revolution made everyday life a peril.

Yet by the time I was born, in 1957, we were Texans. In one of my earliest portraits, I’m decked out in Roy Rogers trappings, with a cowboy hat, a Western shirt, pants tucked into my boots, a toy six-shooter strapped to my hips. I first read Dobie’s Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver in junior high school, alongside Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, embedding the Texas narrative into the global one from the beginning. But the Texas history classes I took never included accounts of settlers like the ones I’d heard of in my family. I knew there was clearly a great Texas story, but for me, there was an absence at its center. By the time I left Texas to study at the University of Notre Dame, I was searching out those books that could fill in this missing tale.

Through the more than thirty years of semi-voluntary exile that followed, whether I was bunking in Indiana, England, Connecticut, or New York City, I harbored this unique literary conundrum that superseded all others—Midwestern, British, New Englander, or New Yorquino. I was never intimidated. Albion’s literary legacy and the great American canon had nothing on my Tejano heritage. I carried an ever-growing sacred bundle of Texas books with me from place to place like an obsessive archivist, a hoarder of esoteric tomes, each of which contained a piece of an unfathomable story that was my truest literary compromiso, a sort of poetico-philosophical obligation—what I’ve come to think of as the Question of Texas.

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