The plan was that I would leave the office early to collect Anne and Molly from school while Carol tried to get away from her projects soon enough to pack supper for the car. It's harder for her to stop working right on time. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most predictable in terms of scheduling and with a hospital emergency room ranking somewhere in the range of zero, my insurance company usually pulls a good solid seven or eight, but Carol's architecture office usually isn't much over three. This is one of the things we live with.
At the grade school there were already half a dozen yellow buses waiting out front, so I had to park down the block without a clear view of the front door. I felt anxious. What if my girls forgot I was coming and followed the herd mindlessly into one of the busses? I got out into the Indian summer heat, took off my suit coat and folded it back into the car, loosened my tie, and then went to wait near the arched stone entryway, well-built in the twenties, now spray-painted with graffiti. Sirens blared through the intersection.
We're what the journalists call urban pioneers. I admit if it were my choice alone, I might be out in the sticks where I could grow decent vegetables and feel justified in having a large, energetic dog. But then, of course, I might not have Carol, which is unthinkable. She's committed to the city.
The bus motors idled and stank in the heavy air; one driver stood smoking by his open door. The weather forecast was for storms in southeastern Wisconsin tonight, another reason to get ourselves promptly on the road. I tried to picture Carol already home by now, laying out a double row of bread slices, building neat sandwiches. In her own ways she's orderly, as I am in mine. We fit together pretty well, I think, even though no one would call me artistic.
Actually, I don't mind being the prudent, plodding sort: I like looking after my family; I love having a wife and being a father. Flexing my shoulders to get the desk kinks out, I was suddenly so glad it was the end of the office week when I could start being a simpler, let's just say more physical man with his family. In a minute I would pluck children who were my own out of a tidal wave of children. I felt fortunate. I try to help people in the community as much as I can, and I work hard for my clients, but at times all I want is to quiet down and enjoy what I've got--my body, my wife, my two little girls.
Ready as I was, I nearly jumped out of my skin when the closing horn blasted over my head. The bus driver who had been smoking leapt into his bus, motors revved, the school doors were flung open just as another siren wailed nearby, and the continuing story of me with my family was about to take up again.
Molly almost threw me off balance. She's a sturdy seven, and she still likes to hurtle herself at me and be swept off her feet, but that day she nearly knocked me off my own. She had a drawing to show me, which she pressed so close to my eyes I could barely focus, a tree, with its brightly colored leaves flying off in all directions.
Anne came along in another minute or so in a slow, hot scowl, dragging her red sweater in one hand and her backpack in another. Something must have upset her, and we might or might not hear about it eventually, depending on whether she felt like brooding or hashing things out. Anne is a temperamental child, opinionated, quick to pounce on injustice or faulty reasoning. Carol seems to be better than I am at asking the right questions, and I was glad that before long there would be a mother as well as a father with the two overheated children in the car. Sometimes I hear an age-old constriction in my voice, but I don't know what to do about it. Improving on your past isn't always so easy; habits get formed; on the farm no one said much or had much to say.
Carol's Volkswagen was already parked in the driveway when I pulled the Buick alongside our house.
"Carry in your own things, girls."
Why do I always end up saying the same things? Molly jumped from the back seat and raced around the corner of the house with her drawing; Annie was still hoisting up her pack in slow motion.
"Actually, Annie, will you carry my briefcase? I've got to get the garbage cart."
She took it with wordless annoyance. Something in me flared. Was this child appreciating her life? I work hard for her, I thought, both her parents do: does she have any idea how we try to make things nice for her?
I felt very emotional as I watched her thin, leggy body lugging her pack and sweater and my briefcase to the back porch. She was only ten. I hoped things would get smoothed out when we were all together this weekend.
As I trundled the cart to the back of the house, I took note of various Fall chores I'd need to add to my list. There's always so much to do. By now I've labored enough on this quirky Victorian to have made peace with it, but when we were first in the real estate market, I was very drawn to a modest, well-kept-up brick Colonial with a small central entrance porch flanked by two rows of healthy yew bushes and a nice foursquare quality to the rooms. Carol said she wouldn't even consider such a boring style.
This weekend my folks were sure to need help with their own chores. On a farm there's always too much routine upkeep--buildings, animals, land, machinery--not to mention emergencies. Most of the time humans get pushed way down to the bottom of the list. I think the whole package of always unfinished, dirty, repetitive, yet often reactive manual work would have been too much for me. For my sister Sharon, maybe it was the dirt that finally got to her. I never really wanted to farm anyway, and my mother always said she hoped I would get out from under, as she put it, though she did give me what I consider a country name, Cletus. I toyed with the idea of changing it when I first went to the university, but I didn't see how I could pull it off--I wasn't like an entertainer or a special religious person, just a business major from an Iowa farm.
My mother's views on my future prevailed so thoroughly that I don't even know if my father had other ideas. One thing is pretty sure: if I'd chosen to stay on at the farm, he'd still have his cows--cows that I'd be helping to take care of. Now my folks are even talking about selling the land, too. That part makes me uneasy; I know about investments, and land is land. It's funny, I've gone the farthest away from it, and yet I'm the one who's not sure about selling. Maybe I see things in more economic, less emotional terms than the rest of my family--or it might be the other way around.
I was surprised Carol hadn't put her own car away because we always take mine on trips. So I shoved the garbage cart into place and then rolled up the garage door and was about to swing into her little VW when she called to me from the porch.
"Thanks, Cletus, but just leave it. I'll tell you when you get in."
There was strong afternoon light on my wife. For work she usually wears her long golden-brown hair bound up in some professional way, and at that moment it was still coiled at the nape of her neck, but I nevertheless saw her as if in a loosened cascade of light. All I wanted was to be simple, and physical, with her.
"What do you mean?" I wasn't computing.
"Just come in. Please. I've almost got you packed." Even though she held the screen door open for me, I felt as if another door had been slammed in my face.
My throat tightened. "What do you mean?"
"Please come on in where we can talk."
We're both sensitive, perhaps overly sensitive, about the close proximity of our neighbors, but the happy truth is that we don't fight much at all, or even argue. We both enjoy the assurance that we're doing our work well and running a pretty trim ship at home. We cooperate.
I followed on her heels into the kitchen and was about to take her in my arms when her hands swiftly returned to folding the laundry on the table, the very batch I had thrown in the washer that morning while she made the breakfast. Her whole body could be read as an instrument of efficiency. Those neat stacks of folded clothes made me feel so mournful all of a sudden, as well as the row of wrapped sandwiches, the boxes of apple juice, the bananas, the cookies.
"I can't go with you--there's been a glitch." She told me details about a preliminary design and a presentation on Monday, but I wasn't computing.
"What presentation?" I had this stupid thought that if I refused to understand the situation, it would not have sufficient dimension to displace the substance of the two of us, my wife and me, standing within reach of each other in our own private house.
With a touch too much of patience, she explained.
"Why you?" But I already knew; her input was essential.
I don't ever let myself forget how proud of her I am. Proposing to Carol eleven years ago was pure brilliance on my part; ever since, I've sort of been trying to keep in step with my original inspiration.
"I warned you my plan to take off for the weekend was a stretch from the beginning. I told you how many deadlines are coming."
"Yes, but now my folks are expecting you." It wasn't what I wanted to say.
"They won't mind," Carol said briskly, as she snapped the last piece of laundry into submission and arranged the folded stacks back into the basket. "Molly!" she called up the stairs. "Your pink pajamas are down here, come and get the basket." Then she turned back to me. "Your mother wants to see you, not me. She wants to see you and her grandchildren."
At that moment I finally had the good sense to close the gap and get my arms around her.
"Listen to this--what if we just go for one night--we could come back tomorrow afternoon, I promise." I held on to her. It's true that sometimes I use my body as a sort of trump card with Carol. I wouldn't mind being a few inches taller, but the way I'm put together pleases her, I know that. She's another one, the original of Molly, who craves to be lifted, literally, off her feet. It's the wonderful flip side of all her discipline and efficiency.
She did let herself relax against me for a few long moments. "I really can't, Cletus. I'm so sorry. We need every minute we can get."
Molly bounded into the kitchen as we were still well-fitted together. "Love! love! calla, walla, wuv!" she chanted loudly as she began rummaging through the folded laundry.
"No, no, Molly." Carol pulled away from me. "Take the whole basket up to our bed and sort things out the right way. Did you find your sweatshirt?"
"It's not anywhere."
"Of course it is. Look again. Ask. Annie to help you."
"Annie's lying down."
Molly seemed small carrying the big basket, but how strong she was already, with the physical confidence to pick up a load and go with it.
"What's with Annie?" said Carol in a low voice. "I hardly saw her."
"Long face in the car. Didn't want to talk. I was counting on you to find out."
She glanced up at the clock. "I've absolutely got to get back down there." She pushed me toward the stairs. "Please go to her, take over, see that they're packed. Please."
"Aren't you even going to stay and say good-bye to us?" I asked over my shoulder. Even I could hear that I sounded about eight years old.
She just stood for a minute. It's sort of challenging to be looked at intently by someone like my wife. "You're really something else, Cletus--you know that?"
Was that good news or bad news? I trudged upstairs.
The sweatshirt was under Molly's bed. I said I'd be back to help close the suitcase. One down, one to go.
"Annie?" I knocked on her door jamb. "What's happening?"
"Nothing," she said after a significant pause. She was lying down, a corner of her favorite blanket drawn up against one side of her face, her fingers nursing the satin binding. Talk about regression.
"Why aren't you packing?"
She didn't answer.
I entered the room and stood looking down at her babyish sulk. Suddenly I felt blinded. All day I had been trying so hard to make things turn out right for everyone. I yanked the blanket away from her. Her eyes were stunned but indignant.
"Answer me, Anne, why are you lying around?"
"I don't know." Her voice wavered a little, but her eyes held firm.
"Well, what I know is that you're going to finish packing right now. I will not leave this room until I see both your feet on the floor and when I get back in here in ten minutes I want your suitcase zipped and ready to go. Are you planning to wear your school clothes in the car? Anne? Answer me! This is your father speaking to you."
"No." There was enough sass left in her voice to imply I had been a fool to ask.
"I told you last night how important it is that we get on the road on time today. Didn't I? Anne?"
I held out my hand to pull her, and in that moment, thank God, the blind anger passed out of me. "Come on, Annie, please let's get going. It's for Grandma and Grandpa, you know. It upsets them if we're too late."
She did start to sit up then, but rejected my hand, and so I was left only with myself and the rest of my own packing.
Twenty minutes later, as the girls were making their play house in the back seat, Carol and I stood together in the driveway. We had kissed inside; now we were saying our public good-bye. Once more in her suit jacket, she was as much on her way as we were, and I could feel how this weekend was not going to be a sacrifice for her. Going to the farm, however, would have been. She feels that my folks, never having accepted her need to be a professional, try to sabotage her ambitions.
Then Carol surprised me. She embraced me. She kissed me. Out there in the world. "Thank you, Cletus. Thank you so much. I don't know what I'd do without you." Then she tapped on the back seat window and cheerfully blew more kisses. And I got in and we were off.
We were behind schedule. It was nearly four-thirty, which would put us at the farm by nine-thirty, not a minute earlier. And if there were extra pee-breaks, we could run as late as ten o'clock. In the middle of the elevated interchange I realized I should have called my folks from our house to let them know we'd be late. I'd have do it from the road, maybe somewhere down in Illinois, after we negotiated the connections around Beloit and Rockford.
I glanced in the rearview mirror at the girls, who seemed content enough in their traveling nest, even Anne. They were whispering about something.
Well, kids are tough, I told myself. Nobody coddled my sensibilities when I was growing up. Which wasn't to say that I wanted my children to have my kind of childhood, when I often ached for attention and for talk that was affectionate or light-hearted. I keep trying to do better with my own kids.
"Are your doors locked?"
"Yes!" they both chimed and then started giggling as if I had just said something hilarious. Their laughter made me feel better. So what if they were making fun of me?
"Let me know when you get hungry."
"Now! We're hungry right now!" said Molly.
"We're not even out of the city," I said automatically. "We can't possibly eat yet."
"Why can't we?" asked Anne, pointedly, her giggles abruptly cut off, a timbre to her voice that reminded me of Carol--the low, controlled tone designed specifically to cut through obstacles, but in a civilized way. I was taken aback. Fifth grade today, law school tomorrow. Watch out, world. I looked at her again in the mirror, with an amazed pride. "Dad? Did you hear me? This is your daughter speaking to you." And then both she and Molly doubled over in renewed snickering.
My father would have stopped the car, yanked her out by the arm and spanked her by the side of the road, but I found myself smiling along with their laughter.
Why not. These were the free voices of the future.
"Well, all right then--go ahead. You've got the food back there. Dig in." But then I couldn't stop myself from adding, "Don't let me hear you in a couple of hours whining that you're hungry again."
They made a show of scrabbling into the picnic bag like famished beasts. "Do you want your sandwich now, too, Daddy?"
"Sure, why not?" I liked that it was Anne who had asked and that she had called me Daddy. Suddenly I had a sharp physical memory of how hungry I used to be as a kid at this time of day, a desperate, clawing emptiness. I unwrapped what looked like an excellent sandwich--turkey, Swiss, lettuce, sprouts, mustard, mayo--made just for me by my accomplished wife. The food didn't seem quite so mournful to me, now that I was actually biting into it. Soon enough the weekend would be over.
I turned on the radio: politics, politics, and money, money, money, which is supposed to be my interest; in a few minutes I turned off the contentious voices. The sun, having dropped beneath the lowering clouds, now flooded across my hands and the steering wheel. We hadn't beat the traffic; nothing to do but be part of it, streaming like metallic syrup through a constructed city world, side-lit from the west. My mother always commented on the number of church spires in the skyline of Milwaukee's south side, where so many of the immigrants first settled. My father's gaze was usually swallowed up by the vastness of the lake--not a barn or field or cow in sight. On my parents' rare visits away from the farm I could never tell if they were enjoying themselves--not that it had ever been clear whether they were enjoying themselves on the farm.
I took another big bite of the delicious sandwich Carol had assembled for me. The city was amazing, really, how filled up it was with man-made shapes. And what did we all think we were doing here? From the elevated highway at this speed and in this light everything looked like a brief but extraordinarily interwoven play world. A gull flapped right in front of the windshield and sailed out over the industrial valley, in the direction of the harbor. For just a moment I could almost feel myself extricated from this mirage, sailing out, no longer in a body but still living.
I took another bite and then gestured with my sandwich toward the west. "Look over there, girls. It's going to storm for sure."
"When, Dad?" asked Molly.
"I don't know. Maybe we'll get far enough south before it hits."
"What'll we do if it lightnings?"
"We'd be okay."
"If there was a tornado, we'd have to get out of the car and go lie down in a ditch," announced Anne.
"Dad, would we?" asked Molly. "We'd get all wet."
"Oh, I've never had to do anything like that, and I've driven through some pretty bad storms."
"How bad, Dad? How bad?" Molly started poking the back of my shoulder with her bare foot.
"Well, let's see. I remember once when Annie was a baby." I glanced around to make sure Anne was paying attention. "We got flooded out in a terrific rainstorm on a back roads shortcut north of the farm and had to detour all over the place before we could find a way to cross the Wapsipinicon."
"I was a baby?" asked Anne, cautiously alert.
"A babe in arms."
"Who was holding me?"
"That's just an expression. Your mother was taking care of you while I drove, and she wasn't very happy with me for getting us in such a pickle in the first place."
"Did I cry? Was I scared?"
"Probably not. You were a quiet baby, Annie--you seemed more interested in watching the world."
In the rearview mirror I saw her looking now with a kind of dreamy self-awareness out her window toward the setting sun and the oncoming storm. What I had just said was the truth but not the whole truth: she had been a quiet baby, but not exactly an overjoyed one. Serious, yes. Extremely observant. Sometimes we called her The Judge.
"Was I quiet, too, Dad?" asked Molly. She prodded her toes urgently into the back of my shoulder. "Dad, was I a good baby?"
"Well, you had colic for awhile, Molly. You kept us up nights. Then you got over that and you were a peach."
"Am I a peach now?"
"Most of the time you are." I pressed my shoulder back against her kneading foot. It felt good. "You're both peaches."
We all went back to eating. That wasn't a bad conversation, I thought--anyway, not for me. With Carol in the car, responding to the girls' questions, distributing the food, pointing out things for all of us to notice, I could easily slide by wordlessly for mile after mile, as if getting us there safely, and on time, was my part.
Some crows, lifting off from a harvested cornfield, then sharply veering, indicated how much the wind was picking up. Now we were angling to the southwest, toward the narrower and narrower band of light between earth and the lid of clouds. Often around this stretch of road I would see hawks circling, but tonight there were none.
Earlier than I had planned, I stopped at a plaza near Beloit and insisted we all use the toilets before the rain started. In the men's room, midstream, I was suddenly fearful for my girls, out of sight, vulnerable; my feelings felt as whipped up as the weather. I hurried out and was relieved when they emerged from the women's room together, giggling and bumping their hips against each other. Their T-shirts instantly flattened against their flat chests, and they screamed into the wind as they scuttled back to the car.
Everyone else was driving a little too fast. Friday night, I thought, seemed to bring with it an anxiety to pursue pleasure, just when people should be slowing down and relaxing. The cloud layer had clamped down completely over the west. Now it felt like a more dangerous highway.
"Is it going to lightning now?" asked Molly.
Almost immediately a bright bolt jagged down the sky to our right. My daughter the prognosticator. Both girls screamed again at the thunderclap.
The rain hit. I strained to see. There were greasy blurs in the fan-shaped swipes of the wipers. Then I remembered I'd forgotten to call my folks at the plaza. Well, in the hours of Illinois ahead of us there'd be time before it got too late.
I kept on and kept on but couldn't get beyond the swath of the storm. Molly fell asleep. Anne asked if she could turn on the car ceiling light to finish her book, and when I said absolutely not, she scrunched down into her corner of pillows. I turned the radio on again, very softly, and scanned the stations for weather reports. In a few more days it would be the autumnal equinox.
One hundred and fifty-odd years ago my pioneer ancestors went around this particular stretch of land by way of water. They drove the Conestoga wagon and ox team onto a barge near Pittsburgh, made their way down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and then disembarked up the Mississippi at what is now Muscatine. They purchased their first forty from the government for a dollar twenty-five cents an acre, then mortgaged the land again and again over the years to pay for more acres and for the equipment to farm it. They tried hard to hold on; now what was left of the family was talking of letting go.
Both girls were asleep and sheets of rain still swept across the highway. I didn't want to wake them, and I didn't want to leave them unattended while I ran in somewhere to a telephone. I drove on and on through the dark flat farm country beyond Dixon, a segment of Illinois that has always appeared so bleak to me that I sort of dread going through it--and I'm supposedly a country boy. Here something terrible seems to have happened, or be about to happen, maybe the ghosts of Indians rising up to reclaim land that never should have been bought and sold in the first place. On a clear night I would at least have been able to see the spaced lights of farms and small towns, reassuring distant constellations.
I like picturing how the journeying pioneers, on clear nights, might have slept outside their wagons under quilts with stars sewn into them and a whole dome of stars flung overhead, out in the prairie, completely uninsured. Did my ancestors enjoy themselves? I hope there were moments when all seemed well. Sometimes when Carol and I make love, I imagine we are outside, pioneers ourselves in the wild grasses, and then I feel simpler, less conditioned, more chancy and creative, more my real self. As a kid I daydreamed, of course, but I never came up with pictures that let me feel the way I feel when I'm with Carol.
It was nine-fifteen as we came down to the Mississippi. Even in a heavy night rain the great river still looked silvery; if you were a bird flying you could follow it like a pale road. I wished I could stop the car in the middle of the bridge and lean for a few minutes against the railing, getting my tired face wet and looking out at the stippled water.
On the Iowa side of the river there were plenty of places to stop and call, but it felt too late for that now. It felt too late to do anything but push on and make every minute count. Anne woke up in the brightness of the highway lights around Davenport.
"Where are we?" It was more complaint than question.
"We just crossed the Mississippi," I told her softly, so as not to wake Molly. "Half an hour more." I didn't want her to ask to stop for a bathroom, and I was grateful when she didn't, even though by then I was uncomfortable myself.
We passed the town and were once more in dark countryside, though in the lessening rain I could now detect the intricate, spread-out network of light nodes. There probably wasn't an inch of Iowa left, I thought, that hadn't been meddled with in one way or another.
In a little while Anne's voice came forward to me, "Why doesn't Mom like the farm?"
I was startled. My daughter the psychoanalyst. "She didn't come this weekend because of her work, Annie."
"But anyhow she doesn't like it."
"How do you know?"
Nothing, I thought, can remain hidden. "I guess basically she'd rather be doing other things. How about you--are you glad to come to the farm?" I glanced around. I could make out that her arms were folded over her stomach, her hair mussed. Again I wondered if this child was happy in the life we were making for her. I felt exhausted. I try hard, but I can only do so much.
I kept my eyes straight ahead. There was a sensation on the right side of my neck, as if Anne were staring pointedly at me. Judging me. I wanted to tell her that it wasn't my fault, at least not in any way I knew, that her mother wasn't with us.
The farmhouse looked wide-awake--lights in the living room, on the high pole between the garage and the barn, at the back door, in the kitchen. I stopped just in front of the old cement hitching block and cut the motor. My ears were ringing. My neck and shoulders ached.
This east side of the house needed paint even more than it had the last time we were here, at the beginning of June. As I was growing up, any big job required that we do without in some other area. But this time it wasn't so much a question of the money. Ever since the cows went, there seemed to be less and less impetus for Mother and Dad to keep things up--as if the cows had been their most important judges.
A stubby figure was coming through the kitchen now, into the back entry porch. Mother. I felt so tired; tonight I just didn't want to go back into this childhood. There would still be time, just a split second in which I could start the motor, slam the car in reverse, and peel out of there, five hours back home to my beautiful wife.
Molly woke up and instantly started to cry. My mother was shielding her eyes to peer out beyond the porch light. Her vision is poor right now; her cataracts seem to be taking forever to be ripe enough for surgery. "Molly, Molly." I got out quickly, grateful that at least the rain had stopped, and opened her door and lifted her from the back seat. It'd been a long time since she'd wakened from sleep howling.
"What is it, what is it?" I stroked her dampened hair. She felt sweaty all over, and it was a lot cooler outside. "Annie, come on sweetie, get yourself out, there's Grandma at the door."
"Del!" I heard my mother shrill back into the house. "Delbert! They're here!"
Molly weighed a ton.
"Oh, what's wrong?" said my mother as we reached the door. "Oh my, why is she crying like that?" She gave Molly's back an awkward pat, and Molly hid her face in my neck. "Your beds is all ready," Mother said to me. Her gray hair looked newly and painfully crimped. She was still wearing her apron.
"Hello, Mother." I bent with difficulty, Molly still wailing and clinging, to give my mother's cheek a kiss. She smelled vinegary; so did the whole entry porch. "Sorry we're late--it was unavoidable."
"Your wife called." Not Carol, but your wife. But she had called, that was good. Why hadn't I imagined that she might? "It's a shame she works so hard, Cletus. She ought to take it easier."
"She knows how to rest, Mother." I looked behind me and saw that Anne was trying to carry too much from the back seat. One book and then another spilled from her armload onto the wet grass. Just then my big father appeared in the entryway, walking stiffly, the top of his bald head white, his face red, his eyes bleary.
"Hello, Dad." I reached around Molly to shake his huge paw. "Shush, now," I whispered into her ear, "you're almost in bed, you're all right."
"She sick?" asked my father. He's three inches taller than I and probably sixty pounds heavier. Once, when he was angry, maybe over the way I'd cleaned the combine or let a battery go dead--something like that, funny I can't remember exactly--he clamped his hands like a vise around my upper arms and threw me against the side of the barn. Coming down, I hit my tailbone on the nineteenth-century creek-stone foundation, laid by my great-great grandfather and his son, my father's grandfather. That place on my tailbone still occasionally gives me trouble.
"She's just overtired--sorry we're so late--I'll take her straight up to bed. And here's Anne, good girl, Annie, you brought a big load." For some reason, maybe just the wailing child in my arms, it seemed too much to ask Anne to retrieve the books in the grass. Carrying Molly up the steep stairs, I asked myself if we gave in too much to our children's moods. Ruin is always possible, at any stage. What I worked so hard for was just the opposite.
I knew every tread on the staircase, the rust in the old upstairs wash basin and toilet, the lavender soap, the way light broke into colors here and there in the old beveled mirror. As she was peeing, Molly shuddered once all over and then stopped crying. I cleaned her teeth with some paste on my finger. She shuddered again and spit, and then she drank two whole glasses of water. Trouble in the night, maybe, but the kid had been parched.
"Your pajamas are in the car, Molly. Let's just take off your shoes, okay?"
The bed was beautifully made, the blankets smelling of cedar, the pillow plump and covered with an ironed, crochet-edged case. Molly sighed and settled her cheek into it. I felt as if it was my turn to cry now, but I kissed her forehead and smoothed back her hair. "Are you all right now?" She nodded. Her eyes were closed. "When you wake up, you'll be here, you'll be at the farm." She nodded again.
Ten-twenty by farm time is the middle of the night. Downstairs all the lights were still on. I had expected to see my mother giving the counters one last wipe, my father punching a final remote surf through the TV channels. And I had thought that Annie would probably follow me and Molly directly upstairs. But what I found was the three of them sitting at one end of the kitchen table eating pickles. Mother had been canning. Red and green battalions of finished jars stood on the counter by the stove.
"What do we have here," I said.
Annie looked up at me. Her lips were stained bright red. On the table were two dishes of pickles, beets, and a yellowish green mound of something else. Also a deck of cards, the sight of which soothed me a little, cards being one of the few things beside work and meals that our family used to do together; the card games sort of filled the awkward spaces. At the other end of the table, arranged on a towel rag with the cleaning kit and oil, were the disassembled halves of my father's pump-action Winchester model twelve.
"Have some pickles while they're still warm, Cletus," said Mother. "They're awful good that way."
My father pinched up a limp mess of the yellowish green kind and lowered it into his mouth.
"What're those?" I pointed.
"Sweet zucchini and onion," said Mother. "It's Sharon's recipe. Calls for lots of turmeric. Your father has taken a shine to them."
"I like the red ones best," said Anne.
"Annie, you never eat beets at home." I saw how this pleased my mother. I sat down with them at the pickle end of the table. Pickles now, trouble later, I thought, but I started tasting anyway. Growing up, I had eaten enough pickles to put a few wrinkles in any personality.
"Did you find everything all right upstairs?" asked my mother.
"Yes. You make the best beds in the world."
"She sick?" asked my father as he chewed.
"No, Dad, just worn out. So, how's the Winchester?"
"Getting to be that time of year--you coming down this fall for the pheasants, Cletus?"
"You know I'm a lousy shot, Dad. Sharon's probably still better than I ever was."
"Can't get Sharon out to hunt no more, now she's a mother. Everybody's giving up on me." He stared hard into the bowls of pickles, grinding his jaw. "Couldn't even get your mother out to the barn to help do the cows."
"Oh come, Del, we all know the story. You could have hired someone and you know it. You was pretty near wore out yourself." My own mother's eyes looked mysterious behind the smeary clouds of cataracts. What did I really know about her? It surprised me to hear her so outspoken. Maybe these days she was picking up more than recipes from her daughter.
"My troubles all started when I married her," said my father in a jokey voice, nodding in Mother's direction. Then, to my shock, he actually winked at me.
"Giving up that barn was the best birthday present I ever did give myself," said Mother, as if what Dad had just said was of no account. "I don't regret it, not for a minute. You can't keep on the same way forever."
"Why not?" said my father, and I saw Anne perk up her ears at a method of arguing straight from her own ten-year-old book.
She reached down the table and stroked the tips of her fingers down the metal barrel and then up along the ringed wood pump on its bottom. "I'll go hunting with you, Grandpa."
"Oh no you won't," I said swiftly, and then before she could protest I added, "and the reason why not is that your mother wouldn't let you, either--you're way too young."
"If I was a boy, would you let me?" Her high, quavering voice was a sure sign of exhaustion. She rose from her chair and lifted the barrel with both hands.
"There's no need to hunt," I said lamely, and my father snorted. His face got redder, but he said nothing.
Everything rushed back to me: the intense cold as I tramped after him on the frozen bumpy earth between rows of corn stubble or through thick stiff grasses of ditches and swales, wearing boots and lumpy jackets that always seemed inadequate. Yes, I had been frightened to death--of his impatience, his jerkiness, his appetites. The actual killing would send a shudder through me and leave me colder than I was before: the bird plummeting from the sky, Dad's whoop; the only part I enjoyed was watching the dogs rush forward. Would my father have liked me better if I had been more like a dog?
"Where's Tricks?" I said suddenly. "I didn't see her when we came in."
My mother pressed both hands down on the table, as if she were about to push herself up. Annie was using the gun barrel as a scope upon various points of interest in the kitchen. Now the gleaming shaft swung around to me. My mother did get up then, brought the pickle jars back to the table, and nervously started forking into them what we had not eaten from the bowls.
"Had to put her down," said Dad. "Arthritis so bad she couldn't hardly walk. Good dog. Last of the good hunters."
I gestured to the handle of the gun on the table, and my father nodded.
I pictured where he had probably tied her up and done it, out behind the barn where the smartweed and buttonweed took over in high summertime, where on hot afternoons you could count on a large angular shape of cool shade, where I had once come across my father jerking off, facing the old cement silo, his back partly turned. I don't think he saw me, I walked right away, I was only a few years older than Anne, I walked quickly around the corner of the barn and across the blazing barnyard, and it wasn't long after that, weeks maybe, another scorching afternoon, when I made my own way into the machine shed, clear to one dark end behind the old' cannibalized Chevy pickup, and I opened my pants and tried it myself, first time, dirty hands and all. The amazing thing was how primed I already was, without exactly knowing it.
I wondered where Tricks was buried. Black lab, big amber eyes, a way of looking at you--of course, is there a dog that doesn't have a way of looking at you? Trick's mother Roxy, who had been my special dog, used to follow me everywhere. She'd gotten run over, pretty far down the road, they told me, a few weeks after I'd left for the university. I guess she'd waited as long as she could and finally just started out to look for me, dog's odyssey.
"It's so shiny in there!" said Anne.
My father guffawed in rough pleasure.
"What's the wood part for, Grandpa?"
"Pumps the new shells in and the spent ones out."
"I want to do it," said Anne in that reedy, unsteady voice.
My mother screwed the caps on the pickle jars and carried them to the refrigerator. She took off her apron and hung it on its hook, turned out the pantry light, then stood on tiptoe to pull the chain of the bright light over the sink. It struck me then that my father should have been able to foresee, with his eye for breeding animals, that if he married someone as short as my mother, he might end up with a runt like me.
"Lay down the barrel now, Annie. Maybe you can help Grandpa put it back together tomorrow."
"But I want to shoot it."
I rubbed my hands down over my face. "Isn't anybody else around here tired?" Then I remembered the suitcases still in the car, the books still in the wet grass. I said I was going out for the luggage.
"Do you want your father to help you?" my mother said.
"No thanks, there's hardly anything."
I felt like a dead man as I banged out the door into air that was much clearer and must have been twenty degrees cooler. Everything was changing very fast. I thought of the coming winter, of my list of fall chores, all the things I wouldn't be doing at my home in the city while I worked here in the country, for my parents. To my surprise, someone had already retrieved the books from the grass. Breathing deeply, I threw back my head. Backlit clouds raced over a brilliant moon deep in a blue-black sea. It was so spectacular I wished someone else was seeing it alongside me.
Annie's flushed cheeks looked as if they, too, were stained with beet juice; getting her to simmer down enough for bed wasn't going to be easy. She had insisted on carrying all her own things upstairs. I followed, observing her struggle.
"Were you the big girl who brought in the books from the grass?"
She was telling me she was competent--yes, Dad, enough to handle a shotgun. In the moonlit bedroom she found her pajamas and swished assuredly past me to the bathroom.
But after a minute alone, she stuck her head out and whispered loudly, "Dad! Can you come stand outside?" She waited until she saw that I had taken my station, and then she closed the door with its translucent glass panel, patterned in a star-burst design. I glanced through it at the unrecognizable blur of my eldest daughter. My child. The toilet flushed. Water ran. I thought about being human; I thought about fear.
My father entered the stairwell and began toiling up, leaning heavily on the banister. Each time we visited him, his arthritis seemed worse. What had he felt like, I wondered, as he tied up old arthritic Tricks and aimed the gun at her and fired? A shudder went through me. Now my mother came along behind him. She, also, took the steep stairs one at a time.
At the top, Dad stopped for a minute on the next to the last step to breathe heavily, blowing out through pursed lips. "Too bad your bride couldn't be here."
"Yeah, too bad." The way he'd just spoken recalled a hot afternoon at the swimming quarry years ago, right after Carol and I were engaged, with my father in a folding chair, his overalls rolled up his white legs to his knees, his eyes under his cap brim following Carol everywhere as she dove from the ledges, pulled her sleek body up out of the water, lay herself out to sun, like a taut mermaid in comparison to the flopped walrus shapes of my mother and Sharon.
Then Mother piped up from half-way up the stairs, "I'm sure she has better things to do."
"It's not that, Mother," I said, knowing that actually it was, partly.
"Well, goodnight then, it's late," said my father, and he made his stiff-legged, swaying way into his bedroom and closed the door.
"Goodnight, son." My mother patted my arm dolefully. "I hope you're able to sleep." It felt like a malediction. She started to turn away, but on second thought added, "You know, Cletus, I never thought you would live to grow up. I thought you might die as a little tyke."
"It was just a terrible thought I couldn't get out of my mind. I prayed to God, but it didn't go away. I swear I saw you dead."
"But here I am--your prayers must have worked."
"The worst thing that can happen is for a child to die before the parents, especially a son."
"Didn't you worry about Sharon?"
"Not that way. Sharon was like somebody else's girl--tough from the beginning."
Annie opened the door from the bathroom. She looked so much like Carol at that moment, with her thick, golden hair and her serious, smart expression, that I felt an enormous relief over how the gene pool had gotten so obviously improved. And I had done it; I had gone out into the world and found a wonderful bride.
"Here's my girl." I opened my arms.
"You like Grandma's pickles, all right, don't you?" said Mother.
Annie nodded. She was shivering, one bare foot curled on top of the other. I kept my arms around her.
"Yes, it's a terrible thing when a child is the first to go," continued Mother. "Believe me, there's no worse thing in the world."
I glanced at Anne, whose brow had knitted as she scrutinized her grandmother. Inside the circle of my arm she felt to me like a quivery sapling.
"Well, it's off to bed for this healthy little one," I said quickly, steering my daughter around. "Goodnight, Mother, sleep well."
"What was Grandma telling?" said Anne as I unsealed her bedcovers and held them open for her.
"She was saying children should live long lives," I whispered.
"Because that's normal."
"But why was she telling about it?"
"She didn't used to think I'd live to grow up."
"But then I couldn't have gotten born to you, could I?"
I pulled the covers up, but she right away undid the tight envelope and searched under the sheet flap until her fingers found the satin binding of the blanket. In the next bed Molly slept on.
"I'd have to have a different daddy then."
"Well, maybe, but I'm glad you were born to us; I'm very glad."
"Did Grandma have a baby die once?"
I watched my ten-year-old working her fingers along the blanket binding as I searched the past I knew. "I don't think so." I had never considered the idea before.
"Dad, you're not going to die now, are you?"
"Not by a long shot."
"You can't because you haven't finished with me yet!"
"That's right--we're not finished." I kissed her forehead. "Do you want another blanket?" She shook her head, no, and then her brow eased, as if more than just my lips had passed over it.
My body, as I undressed in the moonlight, had a spectral sheen. The body I wished I could be seeing instead was Carol's. It felt unsettling to be here, in my own childhood home, without my wife. We were supposed to be together. I rummaged in my duffel for sweatpants and shirt and then went over to the window that framed the moon and the ongoing scud of clouds. Up the road to the north was the farm of the neighbor against whom my father has held a grudge since before I was born, for buying the eighty acres between us out from under Dad, who had already put down a deposit check; our neighbor then offered cash, and the seller, a city person, the grandson of a dead farmer, not caring a fig which country guy got the acres, had only seen the ready dollars. It'd been unethical but not strictly so because nothing had yet been signed. This, and many other disappointments over the years, Dad has taken in such a way as to sour him.
The land tonight looked subdued and almost indeterminate out there beneath the swift clouds. I seemed to see it and not see it--the rolling, ancient sea-bed land that has been so briefly touched by my family. What did they think they were doing, those pioneers? And what did I think I was doing when I left the land for a life of paper investments?
Then I had an absurd thought, in my exhaustion, that the right thing now might be to return the land, to return to that warm night on the prairie before the first land purchase, when the man and woman lie joined together, their liberated imagination mirroring the figures of the stars, content not with ownership but with their vision alone. Could the time have come, I wondered, to travel backwards and give the land away? But to whom? And who am I to be thinking these thoughts? Just someone who has survived his childhood, who now has children of his own, who has used up tremendous energy all his life, trying in anxious human ways to feel secure when the world is in truth indeterminate, and not to be held.
Then I remembered something, like a moon disk rising from the deep, I had seen years ago from this very window. It had been midsummer, one of the years I was home from the university. Waking abruptly one night from a heavy, farm laborer's sleep, I felt pulled to this window. There was a bright moon that night, too. I looked to the south, and I thought I saw my mother walking down the road in her light-colored nightgown. Yes, it was my stocky fifty-one-year-old mother, walking away from my eyes down the public road, her gown ballooning gently. I couldn't move. Just then a screen door slammed and the figure of my father in his bathrobe and work boots lumbered down the lane and out onto the moon-bleached black-top road. She continued walking as if she thought herself alone, and he continued his heavy striding behind her, closing the distance between them relentlessly. But then, before he reached her, she herself stopped and turned slowly around. She faced him: I couldn't really see their faces, nor hear any words. Instead I heard the shrill of insects, crickets, katydids. Don't, I whispered from my watching place, don't strike her. He didn't. He aligned himself with her on the pale road and they both started walking in this direction. It was a hot night, the fireflies swimming upward through the humidity. I watched until my mother and father disappeared around the back of the house.
And then what happened? What did I make of it? I don't remember. I must have just gone back to sleep. That's how I was then, strong young man, tired out from labor, full of myself, thinking I knew who I was and where I was headed, and pretty sure that I'd all but gotten away from the farm for good.
I pried my way into the bed my mother had made for me. As I lay chilled and flattened between her ironed sheets, I wondered if it was possible there really had been a baby who had died before my time, a ghostly sibling who all this time had been watching me survive. I yawned, conscious of myself yawning. We live with a lot of strange wonderfulness, I thought, and act as if it isn't much of anything. I yawned again.
Tomorrow was Saturday, next day Sunday. Nothing earthshaking would probably be decided about the farm this weekend. We'd all be two days older. Some chores done, meals eaten. I'd have to entice Annie away from the shotgun.
A dead child, could it possibly be? My mother had spoken as if from experience--my own mother, like a stranger.
I shivered, really wishing Carol were in here with me. She was the part of earth I had gone out into the world and been inspired to find, and did I ever want to hold onto her. She'd said she couldn't do without me, which was good news, but I knew in truth she was mine and not mine. Everyone has to live like that, I thought: holding and not holding.
Gradually I got warm enough to relax, and in a few more minutes I hardly felt the dimensions of my ironed-out body; I was no size, just alive, myself.
A ghost brother: I could question him. I could ask: What more can I do? I could catch hold of my little boy and beg to be told why I care so much how I live if it is all to end anyway.
And then I was very surprised to receive an answer. I hadn't gone to sleep; I hadn't gone anywhere. It was an intimate voice, as immediate as if it had been right here talking all along and I had just gotten warm enough to fall into step with it: Because, it said, because it does not end.
SUSAN ENGBERG is the author of Pastorale (University of Illinois Press), A Stay By the River (Viking Penguin), and Sarah's Laughter (Alfred A. Knopf). Stories are forthcoming in The Sewanee Review and The Michigan Quarterly Review.