THROUGH A WARMING NIGHT the ice dams on the Big Slough thawed, and in the morning the first robins, antic in their hunt for worms, hopped in the south yard. Freddie Cahill’s spirit, dormant through what had seemed the longest winter of the eighty-some she’d spent on earth, stirred once again to meet the season’s turn. The past months had been hard. She’d coped with her husband’s decline, her youngest son’s worsening addiction, and her own advancing age. Death felt closer than it had before, and, oddly, on more than one morning she had awakened with the line from Wordsworth on her lips, Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Since her days at teacher’s college, Wordsworth had been her favorite, and many a troubled night, after playing out her store of psalms and hymns in the vain hope of sleep, she had wandered among his stanzas, marveling that mere words could ease her mind. Now, with the return of the familiar phrase, she divined a desire, deeply formed though only dimly realized until the understanding broke on her like spring itself that she must see her girlhood home once more before she died.
She couldn’t go alone. She no longer trusted her driving, not for the ninety Great Plains miles west toward the Gypsum Hills. Abel still careered about in his Dodge Dakota, after decades as judge on the municipal bench immune to deputy and officer and even shame, but Freddie refused to ride with him. He was unsafe at any speed. Their grown children called him the Honorable Bat out of Hell, Esquire. As a passenger he was worse. He commandeered the vents, the windows, the radio. He criticized her driving, sprang pop quizzes—“How many car lengths required between vehicles under rainy conditions?” And his directions! “In seven-tenths of a mile you will come to a crossroads at which point you will bear east until the road curves south-southwest at an eighty degree angle.” Or “Travel along the hypotenuse of a triangle that, were it to be laid over a map, would link the towns of Winfield, Wellington, and Rock.” He would hijack the day, stopping at construction sites to marvel at big equipment or jaw with any foreman or earthmover operator he could scare up.
He was best left at home in his back-bedroom den, where in his sheepskin-cushioned recliner he could flip between reruns of Nova and Victory at Sea. His memory, once his pride, was slipping, but he was a man determined to go down fighting. Sometimes she heard him back there trying to mimic the cattle auctioneer on RFD-TV, or intoning fragments of Kansas case law, or declaiming “Invictus” with the stresses he’d used to win an eighth-grade elocution contest. From time to time the master of his fate/captain of his soul would shuffle into her kitchen, bathrobe belt trailing, to ask where she’d hidden the saltshaker or in which hymn could be found the line that went, “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” Years before, he’d sculpted a two-ton Easter Island head out of limestone and winched it into place as a door guard for his holy of holies, his machine barn, and named it Ebenezer, this being the rock raised by Samuel to show how far, with God’s help, the Israelites had come. A stone of forbearance, it was, and this irked Freddie. When Abel was a boy his parents had read him the Old Testament cover to cover and he knew much by heart, but he’d been a skeptic for decades and in their marriage Freddie was the official keeper of scripture. And who was he to set such a stone? Which of them, she’d like to know, had truly shown forbearance?
For a traveling companion, she would have chosen her youngest son Billy. They would have laughed and chatted and sung along with Man of La Mancha and the hours would have flown. Her pocketbook would be a good deal lighter, but so would her heart. But at forty-five Billy was at another of his low points. The few times he’d come home to ask for money he looked thinner, his eyes hooded and dark. She worried about his illness—his T-cell count, his viral load, numbers she didn’t understand but nevertheless placed stock in—and she worried about his drug use. Methadone was supposed to help, but she wasn’t sure it had. She worried about him always, the groove in her brain well worn, but it was a curious thing: out of sight was, more and more as she grew older, out of mind. Too, with Billy out of the picture, she and Abel got along better; the boy was a sore spot in their marriage. Abel was apt to grouse and grumble if they crossed paths. A few weeks before, he’d accused Billy of lifting a bottle of painkillers he kept on hand for an old back injury. Billy denied it. The upshot was that Abel had banished him from the house once again, an exile that, like others before it, lasted only a few days before Freddie let him back in.
Reluctantly she left the subject of Billy and worked her way up the age ladder of her offspring. Gideon had gone to New Mexico to build a straw bale hut and live off the grid, but even if he were in town he’d be a bad bet as a companion. His politics—whatever they were—had grown dark. ClairBell had taken to calling him the Unabomber.
ClairBell. Freddie spent no time at all eliminating her younger daughter, who at the moment her mother dismissed her as a possibility was lounging pajama-clad and couch-bound, watching Jerry Springer and eating Ferrara Red Hots by the handful, her recent Vicodin dose having given her a villainous headache and a sugar jones. ClairBell had an elephant’s memory for slights, always accusing Freddie of playing favorites. She was jealous of her siblings. Even before the trip got underway there was bound to be a recitation of Freddie’s every sin against fairness. And her shocking questions. “How long since you and Daddy had sex?” No, not ClairBell.
Her sweet Jesse. Well, sweet sometimes, but a trip with him might be a trial. He’d gotten over the too-young, barrel-racing rodeo girl who’d broken his heart, but he was a brooder, and it was always a guessing game to figure out which particular burr had lodged under his saddle.
Jack, her firstborn boy, was dead, buried with his head in gauze some forty years before when sepsis from a sick tooth shot through a system weakened by a heroin habit and an inborn heart defect. But she never left his name off the roll call. Maybe, from the other realm, he heard her. She wasn’t sure. Neither was she sure he was in heaven—chances weren’t good— but if love and prayers could boost a soul to everlasting life, hers would have given him at least a nudge.
This left Dinah, who at the moment Freddie’s thoughts turned to her was browsing at Anthropologie on Boylston Street. She’d just seen some majolica cups, thinking they would be perfect for her mother’s sunflower-yellow kitchen, and this made her realize it had been months since she’d been home to the plains. She missed the wheat fields and the cattle and the cottonwoods, the cowboys and the Indians, the shallow brown creeks, the prairie, the very air, but most of all she missed her mother.
Dinah had lived in the east for a long time, and this was a sorrow to Freddie, for the girl was nearest her in temperament. They had a connection. ESP or something, a mother-daughter wooh–wooh they sometimes talked about, giggling, half-believing. A connection she’d never felt with ClairBell. Although her daughters shared straight white hair—a low chignon for Dinah and a jaunty topknot for ClairBell—and a tendency to pack on weight in the caboose, they were as different as sisters could be. Dinah read poetry; ClairBell read PennyPower. Dinah worked as a librarian and wrote an occasional western romance novel under a pseudonym. ClairBell, though she’d wanted to be a nurse, had driven a Head Start bus. Dinah kept her own counsel unless asked. ClairBell dispensed advice gleaned from Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura and then mangled past recognition. Dinah loved music and art. Though some of her tastes struck Freddie as hoity-toity, at least she looked toward a deeper world. ClairBell lived for bingo and blackjack and yard sales. And the awful things that sometimes came out of her mouth…but why go on? Slowly, slyly, a plan came over Freddie. It wasn’t in her to tell an outright lie, but she resolved to take the trip with Dinah and keep the plan from ClairBell. And of course if Billy happened to call ahead of time, why, they could zip up to town and fetch him and he could come along for the ride. With Billy and Dinah, the trip could be a lark. They were likeminded. The three of them could talk about books and music and religion and even politics and not have one disagreement. With this in mind, she began to plan for the arrival of her eldest daughter, who usually came in spring to smell the Russian olive trees, which bloomed in middle May.
And so as the starkness of winter fell away and bright weather came on, Freddie grew excited. Daily in her mind she traveled two counties over to the open range, to the rugged countryside of buttes and mesas red with iron oxide, of sand draws and salt cedar and the beautiful red Medicine River. In her imagination she climbed rills to breathe the air of her youth, fashioned pretty nosegays of poppy mallow, entered a bower under an elm where she and her cousin Eugene had played house, egg crates nailed to the tree for cabinets, broken crockery for cups and plates, a bed of straw covered with a saddle blanket. She was the mother and Eugene was the father and theirs was the ideal marriage. In the leafy playhouse, order ruled. When she called, “Ding-dong, morning,” up Eugene woke and dutifully did his chores. If she told him to say the blessing over the supper table, he obeyed. “Mighty tasty,” he would say after a meal of mulberries and cracked wheat, dabbing his mouth with a leaf napkin. At play-night they lay side by side and if she told him to hold her hand, he would do so, snoring honk–choo, honk–choo until ding-dong morning came again. As each day passed, her desire to see the old place grew like a bud within her, flashed, she smiled to think, upon her inward eye.
From time to time the call to honesty overtook her and she considered telling Abel. Twice she’d gone as far as to walk down the hall toward his lair, intending to unburden herself. But each time when she saw him dozing in front of the television she drew herself up short. He would find reasons her trip was a bad idea and go to work on her until she forgot why she wanted to go in the first place. She would broach the subject later. There was no sense bearding the lion in his den, at least not yet.
At last Dinah arrived and Freddie had only the welcome-home dinner to get through before she could take her eldest aside, enlist her support, and spring her plan. Gathered around the table were her husband, herself, Dinah, Jesse, ClairBell and her husband Rollie, and the unquiet ghosts of countless awkward family dinners past when all of the assembled vied, as they always had, for Abel’s favor. He was the sun around which their lesser planets circled, the one they hoped to please, the king.
According to long habit, Freddie said grace, careful not to veer from the formula Abel insisted on, any variation from which caused pained muttering. ACTS—adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication. This from the man who refused to lead his family in prayer, forcing her into the awkward position of either blessing her own hands for preparing the meal or leaving out the phrase altogether. A surge of pique caused her to flush. Her heart hammered. She picked up the meat platter and passed it first to Abel. He served himself and then passed it on. Her hands shook as she passed the peas and then sent the cauliflower dish around.
Many years before, during the eighties, after the first five children had left home and Billy was in San Francisco, she’d tried to tell her husband a half-truth. This event, never mentioned in Abel’s presence for it galled him still, concerned the death of his lap dog, a grandchild-terrorizing black and white Chihuahua-rat terrier mix named Toodie who had come to them after Jack’s death. In her early years Toodie had been a favorite, but with age she’d grown mean-tempered, and before long no one but Abel could get close without risking a nasty bite. His was the only blood she hadn’t drawn. The rest of the family followed ClairBell’s lead and called her “Toady” for the way she trotted after Abel, her tail stump wriggling obsequiously. He repaid her devotion with kind words, table scraps, and a patience he extended to no other being. Under his care Toodie grew fat as a football. When Abel came home from the law office, he greeted the dog first. At the table, he used her as intermediary. “Toodie says the potatoes need more salt,” or “Toodie prefers butter on her roast beef sandwich.” Freddie was not a jealous person, but in the years the dog had been a member of the household she’d taken Freddie’s place in her husband’s affections and this, she supposed, was what made the creature’s offenses harder to bear.
At sixteen, Toodie was at the end of her days, blind, arthritic, incontinent. A decision was past due, but Abel wouldn’t hear of it. The living room carpet was ruined, dotted with salt mounds Freddie had sprinkled in order to soak up the uric acid. Worse, the beast had taken to ricketing her hindquarters into the firebox of the big stone fireplace in order to void her bowels. Finally Freddie laid down the law. She would feed and water Toodie as before, let her in and out, but she would clean no more messes. To Abel she’d said, “I will not keep house for an animal.” But nothing happened and the messes grew more frequent. Abel continued to greet Toodie at the door, to feed her raisins and black jelly beans and chocolate cake and whatever-laxative-else she begged for.
Freddie was a patient woman. According to her temperament and upbringing and beliefs, she had submitted unto her husband as was required of her by the Apostle Paul. But she’d reached her limit. She gave Abel one last chance, waiting for a morning when Toodie again made the firebox her latrine. “Abel,” she said, “there’s been another incident.”
When cornered, Abel often fell back on cross-examination techniques. He did so at that moment, turning to leave for the office but tossing over his shoulder a question to which he knew the answer. Hand on the doorknob, he asked, “Is anything of a material nature stopping you from cleaning it up?”
Later, when she told her sister Sammie of the act that nearly brought down their marriage, Freddie would say that it was as though, around noon that same day, a voice spoke to her. “Freddie Jane, pick up your purse and car keys,” the voice said, and she had obeyed. When the voice went on, “Now pick up the dog,” she had done this as well. Toodie snarled and bared her gums and tried to squirm into biting position, but she was too old and soon gave up. Next, a hand not Freddie’s seemed to open the door, feet not belonging to her walked to the car, and the will of a person not herself drove to the ASPCA to deposit Toodie at the front desk. “She’s old,” Freddie told the receptionist. “She needs to go.”
When Toodie lost control of her bladder on the desk blotter, the woman said drily, “Looks like she’s went already.” Freddie hadn’t remembered this until afterward, but even after all this time, she couldn’t laugh. The receptionist petted the hoary little head, looked into the milky eyes. “Not enjoying your life any more, sweetie?”
“No,” said Freddie firmly, “she’s not.” She signed the forms, and later in the exam room she cradled Toodie, crooning and stroking her gently as the injection went in and the life went out.
Only after the deed was done did she allow herself to consider Abel. He would be angry. He would feel betrayed. But what about her feelings? He hadn’t listened. He hadn’t respected. Wasn’t a wife more important than a dog? True as these justifications were, they didn’t stop her from feeling heartsick. On the way home she planned the story she would tell, and as she prepared his favorite pot roast she practiced words that would not be an out-and-out lie, only a half truth. “In her sleep,” she repeated. “Toodie died in her sleep.”
At the usual hour the back door opened and Abel entered, calling in the tender voice he reserved for the dog, “Where’s my Toodie-girl? Where’s my little sweetheart?”
Freddie summoned her strength. “Abel, I’m afraid she died.”
By then he had made it to the kitchen table, where he gripped a chair back for support. “What happened? Was she hit by a car?”
That light deer hunters used to stun their quarry, that’s what Freddie saw in the glare of his stricken look, a jacklight. But even under pressure she remembered the words, “She went to sleep.”
Abel’s shoulders sagged as understanding dawned. In a tear-clogged voice he asked, “But she didn’t suffer?”
“No,” Freddie told him, grateful that the hardest part was past and she no longer had to lie. “She went fast.” To hide the sudden welling of her own tears at seeing him so shattered, she turned to her dinner preparations.
When he asked forlornly from the chair he’d sunk into, “Where is she?” Freddie realized her mistake. He would want to bury his pet. Would want to see her a last time. From some inner stronghold, she was able to say, “It’s all done. It’s all taken care of.”
“You buried her?”
Suddenly she could lie no more, and the truth tumbled out. She confessed, adding that he hadn’t listened to her complaints and she’d had no other recourse and it was a mercy to the suffering creature. For a moment she thought she had gotten through to him. Then she remembered the way the little body had felt as life ebbed, the sudden heaviness, and she made her final mistake, saying, “You should thank me for doing what you couldn’t.”
He bolted from the chair and charged toward her, palm raised, and for a dread second she feared he would do the unthinkable, that he would strike her. But instead he stalked out the back door to his machine barn, where he spent the night. He took up living in his barn, coming into the house only to shower and change. For a month he refused to speak to her. Dutifully she prepared trays of food and left them at the door by Ebenezer, she went about contritely, speaking docilely to him, even understanding why he’d been so angry. In the years that followed she came to see that her solution hadn’t been entirely fair. She hadn’t given him clear warning. But not once had she regretted her act; it had to be done. If that made her hardhearted, then so be it. And this time, about her trip out west, she felt the same way. She would go with Dinah, who wouldn’t cross her, and leave the others behind. All she had to do was keep her mouth shut.
But years of inhabiting her own character had done their work, and at the first lull in the dinner table conversation she heard herself saying brightly, “Well, I’ve just had a lovely idea for a day trip.”
As they rarely did during family dinners when Abel held court, his changing moods determining the tone, all eyes turned toward her. She faltered, but then forged on, laying out her desire. “I’ve been wanting to go out west for a while, to the place I grew up, and I think it could be a….” A what? Her stomach felt queasy. Spots faded in and out before her eyes. Beside her Abel sat stiff as his dratted Ebenezer, and she wondered if her trip into the past was partly to have a break from him, from his rules and requirements and his everlasting opinions. “A lot of fun,” she finished.
ClairBell dolloped cauliflower onto her plate so violently that the serving spoon clanged against the china. “So poor old ClairBell’s left out of the loop again?” She aimed a withering glance Freddie’s way. “How long have you and my sister been cooking up this road trip?”
Passing the tomatoes, Dinah laughed nervously, a nervous laugh being her habitual response to conflict. This wasn’t the first time ClairBell had accused them of leaving her out. She could construe conspiracy where there was none. Whether or not her jealousy was warranted had ceased to matter; the trait had taken on the strength of family fact. “This is the first I’m hearing of it,” Dinah said mildly, “but it sounds like a nice idea.”
ClairBell sat back and narrowed her cat-like eyes. “I suppose he’ll be coming along for the ride.” She meant Billy. Her jealousy of Billy was legendary, stemming in part from the painkiller habit the two shared, causing them to compete for the occasional leftover from Abel’s pharmacopeia, and in part from the undisputed fact that their mother often gave him money. She continued, snickering. “Or maybe I should say ‘to take you for a ride.’”
“Just us,” Freddie said, refusing to take the bait. “The girls.”
ClairBell’s keen gaze traveled from Freddie to Dinah and back. “Hmmph,” she said, and tucked into her laden plate.
Abel cleared his throat. He felt left out. Because pouting was weak and unseemly, he had found other ways to register his feelings. His mainstay was to remind his family of his power to protect and provide, but on occasion he changed his tack and staged a minor passion play to show them how sorely he’d been abused. Usually this involved food, primarily salt. At hearing his wife’s plan, he had at first made a show of scanning the table in an aggrieved manner for the salt shaker, planning to ask, “Where’d you hide the salt this time, Freddie?” but there they were, two salt shakers flanking his plate. As a fallback he tapped into the genial tone he kept at the ready to say, “You girls shouldn’t go alone. I’ll be happy to drive you.” Grandly, he snapped open his pocket watch. “Be ready tomorrow at oh-nine-hundred hours, Zulu Time, Central Daylight.”
Freddie’s heart sank. Dinah moved peas around on her plate. Clair Bell took a sip of iced tea, and then said, “Daddy, we’re grown women. I’m fifty-four and Dinette will be…” she cut a simpering look her sister’s way “…what? Sixty-two?”
“Sixty,” Dinah corrected. “I’ll be sixty.” She gave out a hesitant laugh.
ClairBell deadpanned, “You’re sure about that?”
Dinah made herself busy quartering a tomato slice, and there was uneasy silence at the table until Freddie said, “I don’t really have to go. It was just an idea.”
A stranger would have concluded that the subject was closed, but Freddie’s demurral was merely the opening maneuver. Not that Freddie was all that aware of her strategy, but it had played out so consistently over the years that everyone around the table understood it, except for Abel, who labored under the illusion that he had prevailed.
As she served cherry cobbler, Freddie said to Abel, as though the thought had just occurred to her, “Maybe we should go on Tuesday, when you and Big Bill are taking out that old cottonwood.” Abel’s kid brother, a hale specimen in his early eighties who still went on volunteer fire squad runs, came over on Tuesdays and the two men spent the day in mechanical pursuits, happiest when failing equipment required the presence of elder heads beneath an open hood.
“I can’t go that day,” ClairBell put in. “Business down in Oklahoma.”
Freddie allowed hope to rise. ClairBell was often obstructive for no reason other than her contrary nature. Maybe this meant she wouldn’t come after all.
Jesse looked up from his plate, his eyes shadowed by the graduated lenses of his aviator glasses. “Where in Oklahoma?” He smirked. “Your memorial pew at Kaw tribal bingo?”
Dinah choked on a pea and had a coughing fit. It was well known that ClairBell & Co.—never mind that neither she nor her grown sons held jobs and that they depended on the long-suffering largesse of her third husband Rollie Billups—frequented the gaming palace run by the Kaw tribe over the state line in Newkirk. But it was also well known that the bingo palace was closed Monday through Wednesday, and so ClairBell was caught in her lie. When her word was challenged she usually doubled down, taking an arrow from her father’s quiver, but in this case she knew she was caught and so she floated a new fib altogether. “We have an appointment to look at a farm.” ClairBell shared the family habit of driving around the countryside to inspect ramshackle farmhouses that would never be purchased and so this excuse was unimpeachable. She smiled fetchingly, obligingly. “But of course I could cancel it.”
And just like that, Freddie was going! Things would work out after all. That night at the hour she usually sent her worries to heaven, she felt no cares, no worries, only the welling of praise that led to poetry, and in her mind so many psalms collided—O who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord? Who can shew forth all his praise? Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands—they ran together. Not once in her many years of prayer had she laughed aloud during the act, but now at her jumble of words she did, and best of all, she felt in her deepest, most joyous heart that the heavenly Father too was laughing to see his servant Freddie, who always and so earnestly tried to be good, filled with a spirit so giddy it couldn’t help being holy.
From then on it seemed that everything went right. The day of the trip dawned fair and warm. An early riser, Freddie was dressed in navy blue slacks and a white cotton blouse and her bone-colored Clarks even before she prepared Abel’s breakfast. Her sunhat and scarf were stationed on the foyer table. As the others awakened and breakfasted she went about the kitchen preparing a lunch for Abel and his brother. Meatloaf that would keep in the oven, two well-scrubbed russet potatoes in the microwave, and in the refrigerator a pretty strawberry Jell-O mold. The table was set for the two men. She’d replenished the cookie jar with a batch of Abel’s favorite molasses crisps.
ClairBell was known for backing out at the last minute, or at least stalling departures, but she arrived on time and in high spirits. Up the driveway toward the house her white Cadillac surged, ClairBell at the wheel honking the horn and waving gaily. Into the house she came, toting her signature blue train case—this stocked with pills and unguents, Ace wrap, a snakebite kit, bandages, a tube of lidocaine in case of bee sting or what-have-you, an outsized orange plastic vial filled with other, more private, essentials—and an economy-size bag of Red Hots she’d stopped at Sam’s to buy. In the kitchen as they made ready her daughters clowned around, fixing plastic go-cups of diet Pepsi and making jokes. Their banter was so good-natured that even Freddie, who often found their humor raucous, had to laugh. The only potential blot came when, just as she picked up the dishcloth to make a final swipe at the countertop, the phone rang.
The women lunged. Dinah feared it was Billy wanting to be picked up from the bus stop and she would have to tell him no in order to protect their mother’s day, but then her mother would be put out with her and wasn’t this always the way? ClairBell suspected it was Billy wanting to be picked up from the bus stop and their mother would once again abandon her to cater to a boy-child’s whim and wasn’t that always the way? Freddie worried it was Billy wanting to be picked up from the bus stop and that she would have to suffer ClairBell’s anger at changing their plans, which of course she would for she couldn’t deny her son and anyway why should she?
ClairBell reached the phone first, and when Dinah and Freddie heard her say, “No, thanks, not today, and please take us off your list,” they relaxed. “Darn telemarketers,” ClairBell said, hanging up.
Though they should have known better than to take ClairBell’s words at face value, they did, and they gave no more thought to the incident. But the caller was indeed Billy, who wanted to be fetched home from the bus stop. Dismissed so rudely by ClairBell, he smoked a Maverick or two over the insult, and then he popped a Xanax and two Percodan and a light-blue-something and started walking the five miles between the bus stop and his parents’ house, intending to tell off Miss ClairBell Crosspatch. He was known for zingers, was Billy, whether sedated or soaring, and for eloquence. His vocabulary rivaled his father’s. Billy determined to fix his sister’s snippy little spite-wagon once and for all. But of course by the time he reached home late in the afternoon he’d forgotten his resolve. He was so exhausted and ravenous that he could do little but forage for food—a meatloaf sandwich, a few bites of baked potato, too many cookies—and collapse in a recliner in front of his father’s television set. But ClairBell’s lie at least saved Freddie from fretting about what woe would betide when Billy came face to face with his father without her as a buffer.
They were off, Dinah driving the powder-blue Skylark, Freddie at shotgun, and in the back seat ClairBell and her train case. As they pulled out of the driveway they met Big Bill in his red Dodge Ram. He lifted two fingers from the wheel to greet them, flicked the switch on his volunteer fire squad cherry-top and whoop-whooped his siren as they passed.
To keep up their spirits as they drove through town, Freddie asked, “Isn’t this nice, just the three of us?” She smoothed her pants over her knees.
ClairBell rarely let an idle comment pass. Especially if the comment was of the Pollyanna variety, she was compelled to prick it with pins. “Mother, can you believe that not one of your boys tried to horn in on our girl day? Will wonders never cease?” She palmed a pile of Red Hots into her mouth and gave them a satisfying crunch.
Even to her own ears the laugh Dinah intended to sound breezy sounded false, but she was determined to keep ClairBell’s invidious remarks from ruining the trip. “They wouldn’t enjoy themselves,” she said, signaling a turn at the two-lane that led west out of town. “We’d drive too slow and we wouldn’t stop at their salvage yards and stock auctions.” She pulled the Skylark onto the road and accelerated.
Freddie smiled. “Oh, I think Billy would enjoy himself. He’d have us listening to opera and….”
Suddenly the air in the car changed. The aroma of cinnamon and high fructose corn syrup pervaded as ClairBell heaved a dramatic sigh. From the back seat could be heard a sharp flip-flip-flipping of a train case’s catch.
Calculating that a put-down of their brother might be balm for ClairBell’s injured feelings and proud of herself for balancing the tightrope between her mother and her sister, Dinah said, “…and singing along in his horrible foghorn voice!”
Freddie tightened her lips, but she understood that Billy must be slandered as a sacrifice to the mood-gods of ClairBell, who snorted and then rallied to sing in a lunatic cartoon voice, with reddened tongue and teeth, “Welcome to my shop, lemme cut your mop, lemme shave your top. Daint-i-leeee….” Dinah joined her in burlesquing snatches of arias and soon the danger was past.
As they made their way along the next stretch of highway the women fell quiet, settling into their trip. The road ahead, shimmering with mirages, disappeared under the tires as though into a great thresher, spilling out behind them. For a time Freddie remained alert for landmarks, for changes in the prairie as they moved from county to county, the dirt growing redder, the trees growing sparser, buttes and mesas rising from the plains, but soon the rhythm of the tires lulled her, and she was unhitched from the present to range from past to future and back, adrift in time. Her thoughts went first to Billy, to her worries about his health, his finances, his difficult dealings with Abel, but like a jarred turntable before the needle hits a groove, her thoughts jerked and skipped and instead caught on Jack, on the highway miles she’d once driven across the state to Springfield, Missouri, where he lay dying in an emergency room.
This was during the awful decade when the world fell apart, the 1970s. Abel had a city practice then. He was drinking too much for her liking and he kept company with insurance men and divorce lawyers whose ethics she mistrusted. His own law partner was a well-known philanderer. And in the middle of the upheaval of the so-called sexual revolution he had brought home a book called Ideal Marriage by a Dutchman named T.H. van de Velde who had some ideas about marital relations. Some of these ideas were mild enough, and though she didn’t much care for them, at least they didn’t offend decency. But others, oh! She had thrown the book in the trash.
Everything in those years was about sex or drugs or civil unrest. The old order was shattered. Her once-studious Dinah had dropped out of college and hitchhiked to Colorado. Jack grew his hair and beard and spent long days at Riverside Park, doing things that made him smell like skunk and scalp and unwashed clothes. Jesse quit college after two weeks to shack up with his high school girlfriend. ClairBell had scraped through high school by the skin of her teeth. Gideon was off at KU but apparently drinking his room and board allowance in beer-can-sized increments. Only Billy, twelve and still a child, had not abandoned her. Her baby was too big to ride standing up on the front seat beside her as he had while a toddler, his arm protectively around her neck, but he still rode on the bench seat next to her, and he had no problem that couldn’t be solved by a stop at the Dairy Queen or a new Richie Rich comic book.
Jack had been the decade’s casualty. Despite the blue lips and clubbed fingers that should have signaled heart defect to the military doctors, he had passed the navy physical. This in the middle of Vietnam. Six months later he was medically discharged, but at boot camp he’d picked up the drug habit—uppers, downers, heroin—that would eventually kill him. She and Abel had him in and out of Menninger’s. After a second stint at the clinic, Jack had gotten clean enough that despite a sore tooth he was able to go with a cousin on a cross-country motorcycle trip. On the way back from New York, the tooth flared and Jack’s wrecked system allowed the infection to overtake his brain.
Abel had talked to the doctor and seemed to think there would be time to fly over to Missouri in a client’s Cessna the next day, but Freddie knew the boy wouldn’t last the night. She knew. There was a price for a world out of balance and this was it. She pleaded with Abel to drive over immediately but he refused, and so she made the six-hour drive alone. Of that drive she remembered little. She hadn’t listened to the radio. She hadn’t cried. She had barely prayed, she was so stunned, so angry. She’d made it in time to see Jack still breathing, to see the smoothing of his brow when she took his hand and spoke to him, to feel his fingers, though weakly, squeeze hers in return. Even after all this time, though she’d never spoken of the old anger and she mostly thought it behind her, it could sometimes overtake her. Now, as the highway passed under the wheels, came the stark question she’d tried to outrun since she put Toodie to sleep—was it possible that she’d done that to punish Abel, to make things even? No, she decided, no. The two were unrelated.
The car had come to a stop and her daughters were getting out. They’d reached the crossroads town of Sawyer, to which railroad siding Freddie’s father and his father before him had driven cattle. They planned to eat lunch in a cafe Freddie remembered where the strawberry pie and fried chicken were good. She got out of the car and gathered her wits to look around, feeling dizzy and unreal in the white gravel lot and the wide blue sky.
A rust-streaked grain elevator loomed whitely, beside it an open but deserted gas station no bigger than a shack. Dinah remarked that they hadn’t passed another car for the last half hour. The only evidence of life lay by the roadside, a dead skink, fat as an armadillo and buzzing with flies. All around them lay the red dirt prairie, the wind riffling the big and little bluestem, the blue grama grass. The town, or what was left of it, looked makeshift, impermanent, a ghost town, and the place that figured so beautifully in Freddie’s memory felt mean and shabby.
To tide them over, Dinah bought some PayDay candy bars from a machine, and as she handed them out, Freddie said, “I don’t know what I was thinking. Let’s just go home. The drive was trip enough.”
Her daughters shared the patronizing look she hated for its pained patience. She well knew her reputation as a second-guesser, a ditherer, an eleventh-hour mind-changer. ClairBell crossed her arms. “You got us all the way out here to the backside of bum-fuzzle Egypt and we’re not leaving until we find the old place.”
Dinah consulted the map and they took off south toward the Oklahoma line, toward Medicine Lodge. The farmhouse was long gone—burned to the ground during the Dust Bowl years—but they hoped to find the land. The road rose and fell as the hills grew higher and more rugged and the valleys and washouts lower. Miles they drove, turning down one road after another, white clouds swirling at the window glass as the car’s passage stirred gravel dust made of dolomite and gypsum, until suddenly there was Elm Creek Road and Freddie shouted, “This is it!”
Dinah yanked the car into a sharp right turn. Freddie felt her pulse in her throat. Things looked familiar, the lay of land, the feel of sky, in the distance the bluff that rose beyond the ground where the house had stood, the bluff where once she’d been stalked by a mountain lion. Though it would ruin her new permanent she rolled down the window and stuck her head out like a dog’s. Grasshoppers spanged against the windshield and she ducked but she wouldn’t put her head back inside. The road twisted through a gulley past a campground where their Baptist church had held the revival where she’d first gone forward. From the gully the road led to the upland pasture where she’d once wandered, lonely as a cloud. A covey of quail flushed and a cock pheasant whirred up from the roadside. “Stop,” she cried.
Dinah pulled over and they got out. Now that they weren’t moving with the car the world seemed to slow down. The sky grew wider. A fragrant breeze soughed across the grass, and the ground as far as eye could see blazed with wildflowers. Mallow, dogbane, sensitive briar, coneflower, fringed salt cedar like pink bursts of feathered gauze—on and on they rolled to the horizon where yet more blooming hills billowed like waves. Wild rose, thistle, larkspur, rue, bluets and lupine, wild violet, deep purple locoweed and buckeye, tumble mustard, sumac, indigo. Here on the prairie in May was the heaven of flowers, blooming for no one at all. “This,” Freddie said to the wind, “is just the way I remember it.”
She and her daughters walked the pasture, marveling at the flowers. The world over, their poor dowdy state earned ridicule from those whose eyes had not been taught where—or how— to look, for the vastness of the land and the speed with which most people crossed it served as a veil. Prairie-born, Freddie and her daughters knew they had to stop, turn off the car, walk out a ways, and wait. They knew that if still they failed to feel the beating of the great slow heart of earth beneath their feet, the fault was theirs.
As they wandered they called out names of flowers and the others would come to inspect, to confirm or dispute. Dinah deferred to ClairBell, accepting her names—goatsbeard for salsify, blister buttercup for crowfoot. This concession struck Freddie as out of the ordinary, for Dinah could be a know-it-all, but she thought no more about it except to see that some kind of change seemed to have come over the sisters, that somehow they were easier in themselves. The three of them walked to the crest of a hill and stood, the warm wind buffeting them, quietly looking out over what had been the floor of a vast inland sea. At first Freddie thought a grasshopper had landed on her back, but as an arm slipped gently around her waist she realized the touch was ClairBell’s. It occurred to Freddie that the whole long day she had forgotten to judge her younger daughter, to compare her with her sister, and she wanted, suddenly, to cry.
On the way home they stopped in Kingman for lunch. The girls kept asking her if she was all right—she seemed so subdued—but Freddie merely smiled, spooning her tomato soup. “Never better.” On the last stretch of highway, Dinah and ClairBell chatted in the front seat, but Freddie, who had chosen the back seat in order to commune with her thoughts, tuned them out and soon slept. At some point, though Freddie didn’t hear, ClairBell whispered to Dinah the truth about Billy’s phone call, and though Freddie didn’t see, Dinah smiled and reached over to pat ClairBell’s hand, mouthing the words, “You did the right thing.”
At home they found the dead cottonwood reduced to a neat wall of cordwood. Big Bill’s truck was gone. In the kitchen one of Abel’s passion plays, a tableau of rebuke, had been arranged to make it look like starving men, perhaps on the brink of diabetic coma, had staggered through the kitchen and, finding little to sustain them, trudged on toward certain death. The loaf pan teetered precariously on a stove burner so the congealed grease formed an orange pool, two butter knives had been stuck in the meatloaf like crossed sabers, and a gash in the meatloaf’s center looked as if it had been excavated with a trowel. A potato had been savaged, a loaf of bread defiled. The cookie jar was empty.
ClairBell and Dinah laughed at the evidence of their father’s handiwork. “Neglected Geezers Attack Kitchen,” ClairBell said. “Meatloaf abuse,” said Dinah. Arm in arm the sisters headed for the guest room. Freddie was glad it was so easy for them to laugh. All that work wasted, just to buy a day for herself.
She set to cleaning the kitchen. Usually domestic tasks calmed her, but on this day she became more and more angry. After a day of beauty, of the rare and somehow unsettling gesture of affection from her usually bristly younger daughter, to come home to this! From Abel’s back bedroom den the television blared, the volume set at the threshold of pain. She had a good mind to march down the hall and for the first time in their long marriage give him what-for. For old wounds and new affronts. For every time he’d criticized her driving or her cooking or her reasoning. For the way he sometimes said her name as if speaking to a child. For the way he wouldn’t pray over meals. For his high and mighty moods. Because he’d called a dog his sweetheart. For the way their children tied themselves in knots to please him. For not believing the best of Billy, who needed his love and who wanted to love him. For the longest drive on the darkest day of her life. For time and loss and history and sorrow, mixed. She could hear him saying, when confronted with her accusations, “You have to pick your battles, Freddie,” but she would not. She would fight them all, and all at once.
As she put away the ruin of the lunch she’d prepared, as well as—oddly—a crumpled bag from Walt’s Cheap Hamburgers, a place Abel favored, and two Styrofoam coffee cups, she weighed the words she would say. She needed a speech his rhetorical wiles couldn’t turn against her, and at length she had composed a statement. “Abel,” she would say, “from now on our marriage will be a two-way street.” Then she would leave before he mustered an argument.
Down the hall toward his den she walked, second-guessing herself even as she went, wondering if their union had always been a two-way street and maybe she’d just tried all these years to drive in the wrong lane. She stopped at the open door and looked into the room. There, in his sheepskin-lined chair, he reclined, asleep and snoring, weary from his exertions with the chain saw. The television’s light glared onto his smudged glasses. Beside him in the matching recliner, under the afghan she’d knitted, also asleep and snoring, his mouth open and a runnel of saliva glistening on his chin, lay Billy.
Her breath caught and the sand went out of her. How had Billy found his way home? Had Abel gone to fetch him? Had there been a scene? All she knew was that for the first time in months the two peaceably inhabited the same room, dozed in front of the same nature show. As she regarded them, ominous music swelled, the image on the television changed, and the flickering light went red. With a rumbling bass crescendo a volcano erupted, and Freddie surprised herself by letting out a puff of air, a sort of laugh, at so crude and yet so fitting a signal for the shift of ground she felt. On the screen, lava oozed, and in its fiery glow she saw that she’d set her husband as a stone, her life’s impediment, her obstacle, when maybe it was the other way around. She’d always thought she was the glue that held her cracked, imperfect family together, but—she couldn’t think of a word for the opposite of glue—maybe she was the obstacle between them, all of them, not just Abel and Billy but all of them, orchestrating, always orchestrating, trying to pose them just so to make a picture of a family theirs was not and would never be.
She turned from the doorway and went back to the kitchen where she leaned for a time on the counter, waiting for her heart to slow. She picked up the carafe and splashed cold coffee into a cup and brought it to her lips, sipped and swallowed, letting the bitter liquid cool her throat. She was tired from the day, but she set out flour and sugar, butter and eggs and molasses. About what she had seen she would not speak, not now or ever—the vision of her part in things was bleak, was terrible. She would bake, she would refill the empty jar, and even if no one else could taste the great change wrought in her, she would, and their lives, even after all this time, could start again.