We lived just outside of a town called Sycamore. Sixty miles from Chicago, due west. Sixty miles made a difference then, far more than it does now. It had been less than a decade since the end of the second war, and the suburbs, though growing fast with GIs and their young families, were still just a narrow collar on the city. I was the second and last child for my parents. My sister was Harriet. I was the one, though, that our parents had been waiting for—a boy—and it showed in the way they treated me, taking my side in fights between Harriet and me, giving me a stern talking-to for something that would have surely gotten Harriet a spanking or worse. From an early age I understood myself to be different from my sister.
One summer day, Harriet and I found ourselves, as we often did on summer days, bored enough to act like friends. We scratched hopscotch into the ground by the barn, but quickly tired of it. We tried to get our dog, a black Labrador named Petal, to chase a stick, but she wasn’t budging from the shade of the house. It was too hot and she was too old. We sat down next to her just as our father came out of the barn leading Grace, his best mare. She had a hitch in one of her back legs. “Goddamn it,” our father said. “What the shit.” Then he called out loudly for Robert. “Go on and play somewhere else,” he said to us, waving his hand in no particular direction. “Robert!” he called again.
Harriet and I went around the side of the barn, but stopped and waited at the corner, peering around. Robert came out of the house, where he’d been having lunch. His wife was there that day. Estelle often came out and visited with my mother, sometimes bringing vegetables or flowers from her garden. It was easy to forget that Robert worked for our father; most of the time they seemed like partners or even brothers—Father being the elder, of course. Estelle followed Robert out of the house, but stayed on the porch, leaning against the whitewashed post, watching her husband and our father. Robert shuffled over to where our father had Grace’s leg up, examining her hoof.
“What the hell did you do to this shoeing?” our father said.
“I had a little trouble with that one,” Robert said, matter-of-fact. He stuck his hands on his back pockets.
“I can see that. What I can’t see is how you were gonna reimburse me the price of a healthy mare after she goes lame ’cause of your half-assed work.”
It wasn’t like our father to talk to him that way. Robert’s body slumped a little, but then he stood up straighter than normal. “I don’t think it’s quite that bad, Karl, come on. She’ll be back to normal in a couple days.”
Our father looked at him. “Well, then we can laugh about it in a couple days, but for now all I got is a lame horse.” He turned his eyes back to Grace’s hoof. “Christ,” he said. “How short d’you cut this?”
Harriet and I headed out and wandered across the field, moving carefully through the rows of tender cornstalks that we could have trampled with one misstep. The stalks should have been higher by that point in July, but we’d been suffering a hot and dry spell and everything was getting dwarfed by it. The sun was high and I had to squint to get any detail from the wash of green and brown and white in front of me. “Shoo-wee,” Harriet said, referring to either the heat or the interaction between our father and Robert.
“No kidding,” I said. Either way.
Harriet was twelve. I would be ten in the fall. She was already showing signs of having our mother’s tall and lean physique. She towered over my short, chubby self. Every once in a while I would have to double-time a few steps to catch up to her. I promised myself that someday I would pass her up, gaining such height that everybody else would have to break a sweat to keep up with my long gait.
“What do you think Dad’s got a bug about?” I asked.
“Well, it isn’t just Gracie,” Harriet said. “Even I know that hoof’ll grow out in a few days.”
“You think he just woke up on the wrong side of the bed?”
“I’ll let you know as soon as I figure out how to read minds,” she said.
Harriet breathed loudly.
The field sloped ever so slightly downward to a line of anemic sycamores. For the longest time I thought the town had been named after this meager grouping, not knowing they dotted the whole region. Past the trees the ground fell away and we slid and hopped down to the creek bed that edged the south border of our land. The east and west sides ran into the McComb and Wilson farms, and to the north was the gravel county road that took us into town.
The creek bed was made of smooth, rounded stones, settled enough that they held in place as we stepped. There should have been water, at least a little, for another three weeks. A few days before, I had been walking the field and I found my father standing at the creek’s edge. He looked down at it and then up at the cloudless sky. He took his brown cap off his head and used it to shield his eyes from the sun. I approached and asked him what he was doing and he looked back down at the creek and said, “Minding the store.”
“You think Mom’s ever gonna come out?” I asked Harriet. Our mother hadn’t been past the front threshold in seven months at that point.
“Like I said, if I get to read minds, I’ll let you know.”
“If I was Dad I’d make her go out. She’s his wife. She has to listen to him.”
“I’m going back,” she said abruptly, and made for the bank of the creek.
“Don’t,” I said.
She stopped. “Don’t what?”
“Don’t go yet.”
“Don’t go yet, what?”
I got it and rolled my eyes. “Don’t go yet please.”
She came back and we resumed our progress along the edge of our property.
“You can’t make a person do anything,” Harriet said.
“Kevin Johnson made Shane Wilson eat a worm,” I said. This was true—it had happened just before school let out for the summer.
“That’s not the same thing,” she said. “Anyway, he didn’t have to do it.”
“Kevin was gonna beat him up if he didn’t.”
“Yeah,” she said, “so he could have taken the beating.”
“I bet I could make you do something,” I said.
“This is not a game I want to play.” She was making a serious effort to sound like an adult in those days. “Just stop,” she said, “or I’m heading back to the house.”
“Stop!” she almost screamed.
We continued to walk the creek bed. I slowed and let Harriet take the lead and then bent down and picked up a small stone. I tossed it, not hard, and it tapped her on the head, right on the part in her hair, where it split into pigtails.
“Ow!” she said, reaching back to rub the spot. “God, what was
She waited for an answer, but I said nothing. Then Harriet puffed out a breath and clambered up the embankment. I followed. She strode quickly back toward the house, but I didn’t try to catch up. I wished she would change her mind and come back, but knew she wouldn’t. She just kept getting smaller in the distance.
When I got back to the house the radio in the living room was on. Tchaikovsky. The only station in our area played Tchaikovsky every afternoon at one o’clock. And every day my mother would turn it on and raise the volume until the speaker buzzed and then go upstairs into her room. We got to know the composer’s work well. Even from outside we’d hear it. When the piece was over, she’d come back down looking puffy in the face. None of us would say what we knew: that for some reason our mother went upstairs each afternoon and cried to Tchaikovsky. There are words corresponding to what ailed my mother, words that are known in our current cultural lexicon: agoraphobia, depression, panic disorder. But back then and back there we were at a loss. All I knew was that there was something wrong with her.
My father came into the house just after me. Normally he would just go do the work that took him farthest from the house, not returning until the music softened. But this day he walked straight to the radio and turned the dial until it clicked. Barely a beat passed before my mother issued a piercing scream from upstairs. Even after traveling through the bedroom door, down the stairs, and across the room, it was still enough to jerk my hands up to my ears. Our dad took the stairs two at a time while I tried to block that voice from my head. It was almost unbearable for the second that the bedroom door was open. But it didn’t end. She stopped to reload her lungs and then once again bombarded the house. Every few seconds she would silence herself and our dad would plead angrily, and then the noise would resume. Finally he came slowly down the stairs, looking empty. He went to the radio and turned it up even louder than before.
“Dad?” I said, over the crescendo of strings. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, to ask. Something about my mother, about adults.
“Is it important?” he said. I said nothing. “Later, then.” He went through the screen door and then stopped. “Robert’s in town tending to some business,” he said. “Make sure the horses got water in their buckets.”
He drove the truck to the far side of the field. There he got out and looked west to the Wilson farm. Two white arcs hung low over their fields. In recent years, many farmers had installed irrigation sprinklers. The Wilsons had done this the year before and recorded a banner harvest. This year, with the nonirrigated farms like ours suffering from the drought, they were practically set to do us in.
I dragged the hose through the barn to fill up the horses’ water buckets. My father or Robert would have taken the buckets out to where the spigot was, but I knew that if I was able to lift the bucket, it wasn’t enough to get the horses through the afternoon. I reached the hose through the gate of Grace’s stall and watched the bucket fill. Then I pulled the hose back, placed a thumb over the stream, and shot a quick burst at Grace’s rump. Her head shot up and a shake passed down her neck and withers. She looked at me, the whites of her eyes showing. I gave her another shot and she whinnied.
When I was done I found Harriet and Estelle back behind the house. My sister was perched on a sawhorse, her ankles wrapped around the legs to balance. Estelle stood in front of her. The music was still wailing through the open windows. Harriet and Estelle were talking to each other, but I could not hear them.
Then Estelle turned to me and said, “Well, there you are.” I read her lips as much as I heard her. “How are you doing, sweetie?” Harriet looked at me with some kind of sad contempt. “Come on over here,” Estelle said. I went to her and she put her hand on my shoulder. “You know your mama’s just having a hard time, right? She’s gonna pop right out of this just as soon as she can.” It was clear that Estelle wanted it to be true, that she liked Harriet and me and our mother a great deal, and that she did want good things for our family. She was a decent sort of woman and I knew I should have felt comforted, but having this smiling face tell me that my mother was going to be okay only made it seem more uncertain. I looked up at her and waited for something further, but all she did was purse her lips into a tighter smile and tilt her head slightly to the side.
“If you ever need anything,” she said, “if you ever need anything, you tell Estelle and I will just come running.” She looked at my sister. “That goes for both of you. You say the word and I will be here.” She pushed a lock of hair away from Harriet’s face and behind her ear. “In fact,” she said, “maybe we can go get some ice cream later.”
Harriet smiled and just then the music went mute. Our mother appeared in the living room window, her face slightly grayed behind the screen. “Staying for dinner, Estelle?” she said. Her eyes moved to Harriet and then to me before landing on Estelle.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m not sure how long Robert’s gonna be. Anyway, I don’t want to put you out.”
“I’ll make enough just in case—chicken tonight,” our mother said, and looked at me, as this was my favorite. Then she disappeared back into the house.
Estelle said to us, “Doesn’t that sound good.”
Harriet had gone inside to help our mother with dinner, and with Robert gone and my father off in the fields, I was again on my own. I thought about heading over to see what Shane Wilson was up to, maybe cooling off going under his dad’s field sprinklers, but I remembered how my father had been looking out there and thought better of it. I also remembered how I hadn’t stuck up for Shane when Kevin Johnson made him eat that worm, and how Shane had looked at me afterward. So instead I walked the field and the bone-dry creek bed, thinking about my mother and about Estelle and about how different two women could be.
In addition to the house and barn and silo, we had two outbuildings on our land. One of those was full of machinery and other equipment, but the second was little more than a shed, empty save for a few random items: a cracked bucket, a wooden box missing its top, various rusted-out crank drills and hammers, and a cup of nails sitting on a counter-high work space. It stood only a hundred or so yards from our front porch, but had been in a state of ignored disuse for so long that it was barely seen, as though it wasn’t even there. Like some browned-out shrub nobody had yet taken the time to rip up. I went there on bored afternoons to pretend it was a castle I had to protect, or the hideout of a thief I had to apprehend. On this day it was to be a cabin far off on a winter mountaintop. But as I got close, I heard something from inside and peered through a break between the wall slats. The blinding sun was lowering on the other side of the shed, slicing through the small room in shards. My father stood in front of the work space with his back to me, his pants slung low enough for me to see the pale skin of his rear. Two bare legs wrapped around his waist. He made slight movements. Though his head and shoulders hid Estelle’s face, I recognized the long red-blond hair flung over his shoulder. She emitted a repeated noise, a faint ha ha ha. My father puffed short breaths through his nose, the same as when he chopped wood and hit the log clean.
I stepped silently backward a few yards, a safe distance. I was about to break into a run and hide behind a low berm on the other side of our driveway to wait until they came out. To see whatever I would see. I couldn’t imagine. But before I could move away any farther I saw my mother in the doorway of our house, the screen open. She was in a black and yellow dress, her hair down just the way it was each and every day. And, like always, she wore that look of exhaustion on her face, that expression I could never quite understand or forgive. She raised a hand and waved at me with her fingers. Without thinking, I checked on the shed to see if anything could be detected from where I stood. Then she looked over at it. If there was any surprise on her face, any burst of understanding, it disappeared before I could register it. The little building remained still. But she suddenly seemed a bit sadder. She drew her eyes back to me and slowly raised her hand again and went inside the house, letting the screen door bang shut.
My mind darted back to the shed. I understood what I had seen. I’d heard talk of it at school with friends, though the details of the act as reported (usually by boys with older brothers) were always fuzzy and, as often as not, doubtful. For all that mystery, it was amazing how clear it was at the moment of witness. And though I could not quite comprehend why anyone would want to engage in the act, I understood my father wanting to be close to Estelle. Estelle laughed and Estelle smelled good. Estelle, as far as I could tell, didn’t know the first thing about Tchaikovsky, or care. Sex was for married people, for mothers and fathers, but somehow my nine-year-old self also had the inkling of an understanding of adultery, an understanding beyond the definition. I understood why. I sympathized with my father and Estelle. I took their side. It was okay what they were doing, maybe even good.
When I came back to the house an hour later, my family was just sitting down at the table, along with Estelle and Robert. My mother was at the counter, cutting a chicken into pieces. “I was calling you,” she said.
“There he is,” Robert said. I hadn’t seen or heard his truck coming down our drive. I felt like I hadn’t seen him in days, though it had been only hours since my father chewed him out by the barn. His thin hair had been freshly combed back.
“Where have you been?” my father asked.
“I was at Shane Wilson’s,” I lied.
“Admiring his daddy’s fields?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t know.” His face was like it always was: round and reddish and stubbled.
“All right, well, sit down there.” He tapped on the table in front of my seat. “Get some food in you.”
“Smells delicious,” Estelle said to my mother, who told her, “I’m glad.”
Estelle smiled and there was a moment where her mouth hung open and it looked as if she was going to say something else. But she didn’t. She went back to looking at her plate, straightening the napkin on her lap. Her hair was pulled neatly back in a ponytail. A small blotch of red showed on the skin over her collarbone. Small enough that no one would have questioned it. It was a hot day. Skin goes crazy.
I turned and found my father looking at me. His hands were folded beneath his chin and he eyes were squinted.
“How is that Wilson boy?” he said. “Scrawny little thing, isn’t he?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“What was it that other boy made him do, lick a frog or some such?”
“Eat a worm,” I said. I glanced across the table at my sister, thinking about the conversation we’d had earlier, thinking about that little rock I’d thrown and how it had sent her away. But she was looking out the window, her mind somewhere else completely.
“That’s terrible,” my mother said, dishing food onto plates.
“That’s boys,” my father corrected her.
“That’s good protein, too, I imagine,” Robert joked.
“Maybe he should put more in his diet,” my father said, “get some muscles on his bones.”
“He’s just a child,” my mother said.
“Must have dug deep to get a worm in these conditions,” Rob-
My father took a tug off a piece of bread. “Got them sprinklers,”
“Oh,” Robert said, “that’s right.” As if just remembering that not every farm had the difficulties we did. Not every man was out tending to hard, dry dirt.
My mother served each of us before sitting down with her own small portion. Chicken and potatoes and peas. Even the peas tasted good. Everything my mother cooked tasted good. When she set my plate in front of me she paused to put her hand on my head, smoothing down my hair and then curling her fingers in, as if to take a little piece with her, to slide it into her pocket.
Our old Lab, Petal, walked across the room in her slow, arthritic gait. She carefully leaned forward, stretching her front legs and raising her rear. Her tail went up, giving us a view of her backside.
“Don’t you wink your bung at me,” my father said. Harriet giggled and then said, “Eww.” “Karl,” my mother said. Petal looked back at us and then let go a squeak of a fart. And that sent us all into fits of laughter, even my mother, though she tried to hide it. I laughed harder and longer than anyone else, tearing up, giggling uncontrollably at that slow, gassy old dog.
“We’re gonna have to be going right after dinner,” Robert said after a minute. “O’Connor’s staying open so I can pick up that brake drum, but I got to get there by six.”
“But what about ice cream?” Harriet said.
“What’s this?” my mother said.
“Oh,” Estelle said, “I mentioned maybe we’d go into town for some dessert. I hope that’s okay.”
“That’s fine,” my father said. “You go on over to O’Connor,” he said to Robert, “and we’ll get the kids their sweets, then you can meet us and be on your way.” Robert looked at his wife, but Estelle just went about cutting and chewing her food. My father gestured at her with his fork. “She doesn’t want to go over there. You kidding? O’Connor gets talking. Old man’ll bore the woman to death.”
“Yeah,” Robert said after a moment. “I guess you’re right.”
“Don’t suppose you want to come?” my father said to my mother.
“Maybe next time,” she said. “Anyway, not too much room in that old truck of yours.”
“Nothing wrong with that truck,” he snapped.
“I didn’t say there was, Karl.”
“Yeah,” he said. There was a pause during which none of us spoke or even looked up from our plates of food. There was just Petal clacking across the floor in the living room. Finally my father said, “Chicken’s good,” and took another bite.
A while after dinner we piled in, my father behind the wheel, then me, then Estelle with Harriet halfway on her lap. It was tight, but once we started, the wind through the windows cooled us and I liked being forced against my father’s side.
We got into town and it was still hot and the ice-cream parlor was doing brisk business, the line to the counter a dozen people deep. As we waited I thought of how good this was, standing there with my father and Estelle, even with my sister. After a few minutes my father sighed and handed a dollar to Estelle. “We’ll be outside,” he told her. “Chocolate and chocolate,” he said, pointing first to himself and then me. On the sidewalk, folks were heading to the pictures. My father set his hand on my shoulder and took me slowly against the general stream of people.
“Did I hear you threw a rock at your sister?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, you can trust me that that’s what I heard. Are you saying you don’t know if you threw a rock at your sister or not?”
I said nothing.
“Listen to me here,” he said. “You don’t throw rocks at your sister. You know better than that.” He took us to a bench. We sat down and he gestured vaguely back toward the ice-cream shop. “They’ll see us over here,” he said, as if to reassure me, and then continued. “Don’t throw rocks at girls. There’s a way men treat women. You need to protect them, son. Other people try to throw rocks, your job is to stop them. I know they can be a handful, but still that’s no reason.”
Estelle and Harriet joined us with our ice creams. We fit ourselves onto the bench and ate in silence. Robert showed up after we were finished and our father said, “All right, then,” and the three of us got into the truck.
We took the long way, swinging a few blocks to the south before heading back up toward the farm. There were houses just off downtown, tall Victorians that people called the Painted Ladies. They were decorated with bright colors on the eaves and shutters and doors and window frames. Delicate woodwork spiraled and laced along wraparound porches. Each one was unique. Each one a testament to the early days of the century, when Sycamore and a thousand other towns like it were flush with money and spirit, established by men whose family names were known. They were built with precision and lived in with what I imagined was a kind of clean elegance. We stared as if we were looking at both the past and the future simultaneously, the what-was and the what-if. I indulged in fantasies of leisure and power. Servants. Underlings in vague business ventures. Cars in the drive. Sometimes a wife, though at the moment I hardly understood the use of one.
“This year we start home economics,” Harriet said to our mother, who was sewing up a hole in one of my father’s shirts. The three of us were in the living room and I was curled into the wingback, picking at the stiff metal links of an old horse bit. “And they’re having all the mothers come in. A different girl’s mother each week to help out with the class.”
Our mother did not look up from her stitching. “That right.” Then, “Where is your father?”
“Checking on Gracie,” I said. He’d been gone for a while by then. He hadn’t even come in after we got back from town.
“I told Mrs. Samuels about what a good cook you are,” Harriet said, “and she said there’d be plenty of weeks we’d be doing cooking and baking. She said all the mothers would be choosing whatever they wanted to do. If they want to make a pie or cook up a casserole or, well, anything.” She drummed her hands on the book in her lap. “Anything else, either,” she went on. “It doesn’t even have to be cooking. If you want to show the girls about that stitching or just keeping house, I’m sure that would be fine.”
“Well,” our mother said, and then paused. “Well, let’s talk about that closer to schooltime.”
“You could probably show everyone a thing or two about doing up a chicken,” Harriet said, smiling.
Our mother nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She bit off the line of thread she’d been working into the shirt and tugged at the fabric, testing the strength of the stitches. Then she picked up a pair of jeans and went about rethreading her needle.
My sister left it at that and said she was tired. She kissed our mother good night and went to her room.
In the silence between my mother and me there hung information. Information I had, and information she had. And there was some we shared, but neither of us was quite sure what exactly that was.
“I guess it’s about your bedtime, too,” she said.
“Maybe she should bring Estelle to school with her,” I said.
She finally looked up from her stitching. “Say that again?”
I tried to make it sound casual. Something that just made simple sense. But my face was hot. “Maybe Harri should bring Estelle with her to her class.”
“Why would you say that?”
I shrugged. The smell of chicken remained in the air, warm and salty. I felt sick in my stomach. The radio was dead quiet in the corner. My mother kept her green eyes on me, waiting for me to say what she hoped I couldn’t. “I looked over in the shed today,” I said.
Her cheeks dropped. “I think it’s time you head on to bed.”
“I was gonna go in there and play—”
“Head on up to bed now.”
“It was strange—”
“That’s enough,” she said sternly.
I held her gaze for a moment and then got up and went to the front door, pushed open the screen, and stepped onto our porch, letting the door thwack closed behind me. There were a million things I could not have known right then. I did not know that we would survive the dry season that year, barely, and that my father would continue to eke out something like a living for years to come. I did not know that in three years my mother would be gone, having finally escaped the house by way of a rope and a sturdy beam. I did not know that Harriet would leave us, too, as soon as she could, off to college just after her eighteenth birthday, and later to her own family and life. Or that Robert would one day buy his own parcel of land, that our interactions with him and Estelle would be limited to moments in town when my father refused to talk to either of them. And I could not see to the time when my father would pass and the farm would be sold off to real estate developers who would raze each building, starting with that shed, and tear out the crop without harvesting so much as a kernel. These events would come in their own time, but each and all of them are now wrapped up, inextricable, in what had just transpired between my mother and me. Even then, though, I knew I had created an absence already through my own stupid cruelty.
My father sat on the porch swing. Music from the radio came on inside. Softly. My breathing became heavy and my body tense. I had to keep from crying. I wanted to scream and to put my small fists into my father’s chest, his red face, but I stood motionless just outside the door, paralyzed with knowledge. The air was still hot. There were no clouds in the sky. He tipped his hat back off his forehead and kept his eyes out on the hard fields.
“This goddamn season,” he said.