Today they’re celebrating, our parents. They’re going out. We kids are going to gorge on pasta and popcorn. I’m thirteen now and this may be The Big Thing, the thing we’ve been waiting for since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, since we first left Michigan for rural Iowa: They got their book accepted for publication, my parents did, and if you’re my dad and it’s 1973 and April, and your students are talking about the end of the war, and the sky is clearing for the first time since November, and the spring is thawing into green patches, and the wrecked fields are emerging from under the snow—then you put on your chic dashiki! You make a drink! Tune in the radio and hope for something boisterous, like Rachmaninoff. If you’re my mom, you light a cigarette and put on makeup for the first time since whenever.
And if you’re their kid, you’ll not know what to do with your joy.
My dad’s heavy footsteps resonated through the house as he rushed from the bathroom mirror to the living room, where he crashed out a few dissonant bars of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky on the baby grand, then ran back to the bedroom to finish dressing. He had already blow-dried his hair, bringing out the lightning-bolt blaze of white that ran from forehead to crown (a mutation, he had explained, one that was neither adaptive nor nonadaptive). He kept his goatee dyed jet black. His appearance asserted his opinion about the war. Women noted him, the tall man, broad shouldered, very pale blue eyes.
The air smelled like pasta, perfume, hairspray, and cigarettes. My mom picked out earrings, listening to my father talk while he dodged about the house, cleaning, putting things away. From the bedroom he shouted,
“Dorothy, I don’t think my father could even read the book,” tugging their chenille bedspread taut in one muscular jerk.
“Mine would use it as a doorstop,” she yelled back from the bathroom, pulling out a Snidely Whiplash voice from Rocky and Bullwinkle to add, “You can tie me to the tracks, but I still won’t read your book!”
Between their shouts a warm silence of victory filled the house.
We wandered in and out of their preparations, Danny, Sara and I. It wasn’t easy to get our parents’ attention this afternoon, but we tried: burping the alphabet, posing good questions, trying to make a sibling cry. We were small creatures yapping at the air, squeaking and garrulous, walking on our tiptoes, lunging, faking, falling. My mother was excited now in her measured way, standing in front of the bedroom mirror, adjusting her skirt. She finished her Salem and secured her hair with frail pink tape, too weak to even hold a Hot Wheels track together. The area by the bedroom was a harsh cloud of Aqua Net overspray.
Our parents that afternoon were Brahmans, progressives, young Kennedys; unapologetically ambitious, ready to have somebody bring them a drink, ready to talk about overpopulation, Nureyev, or Nixon. Their textbook was going to change things. All things crude and ugly and plebeian, including this godforsaken weather-scraped Iowan plain, their calculated moves from place to place to get degrees and jobs, even their own working-class parents, all that was just a foil.
The sky grew darker and they were running late.
I watched from the bedroom door. It was rare to see her get dressed up. She usually wore capri pants with sockless canvas shoes and an oversize shirt. I have images of her standing with my father out by his elaborate summer garden, an arm’s length from him, listening to him review in detail his plans for his flowers, her right hand holding a cigarette, wind whipping her short hair, thin arms folded, clean white shoes against green grass. She was small and moved quickly, abruptly, and she fidgeted. She was easily startled. She didn’t normally hug or touch. My mother had delicate features, a sharp Southern chin, high Irish cheekbones, and refused to wear makeup except on very special occasions. She was pretty, I think, maybe also a little intense. Men would go out of their way to talk with her, try to make her laugh, and fail.
But she let them try. When I was a little kid, I spent part of an afternoon with my head against a tree, punished for punching a smooth-talking summer camp counselor in the stomach. He was showing her how he could touch his tongue to the tip of his nose, and she was watching. We were near a lake, in the sharp grass and sand, kids screaming and yelping around us. Without saying anything I walked up to the guy and punched him hard in the gut. He never expected it and doubled over. She stood there and watched it happen, didn’t yell at me or ask the man if he was OK. When he stood up, he put the crown of my head to a tree and had me lean into it, which I did. If there was a moment there, I wrecked it.
She admitted to me awhile back, in our first winter in Iowa, while she and I set the table, dismissing her memory yet allowing it to be known, that she had been chosen Miss Deerfield as a teenager, the local beauty queen of her Chicago suburb. She had tried hard to lose her rural Arkansas accent and started work in her father’s bakery. All her siblings worked there—there was no “discussion” of where you wanted to go before or after school. As she showed me how to set the table (“fork, knife, spoon”), she explained that she and my father were both dual majors in college—English and Biology—and so took the same classes together again and again. Boiling water in an aluminum pot (“But iron pans can help keep you from becoming anemic”), she told me that my father was drafted, then released when Brezhnev’s Sputnik went up in 1957 and Eisenhower shunted scientists into civilian teaching (“Stalin, that bastard”). My parents went from teaching high school to teaching college (“when you stir the rotini, do it in a figure eight as if you were in the lab”). She did groundbreaking work in parasitology during grad school (“and your father used electrophoresis to work out the taxonomy of different species of myxomycetes”). She didn’t have to explain “myxomycetes” or “electrophoresis.” I couldn’t not know. Home was school. “DNA is like two spiral pieces of rotini wrapped together.”
Soon the last dish was washed. Their Dodge junker, one they bought before Johnson was elected, chose to start. Their friends were waiting for them. One of them was the DJ on the evening show that played the Bach and Beethoven we listened to by default.
I saw my parents drive out over the county-line road in that red car, spraying mud as they drove over the half-frozen crown toward Ames. It was snowing tentatively, nothing to worry about. They drove by fields of crushed silage and old scabs of snow clinging to the small rises, the same landscape we three kids watched from our high school-bus windows. She was so small in the car you could barely see her head above the passenger seat as they drove away; he was so tall the white blaze in his hair brushed the dotted headliner. The quarter window was cracked open so my mom could smoke Salems on the ride into town. I pictured the smoke rising from her cigarette in serpentine luxury, billowing, as if it had all the time in the world, careless, oblivious—until the slipstream snatched it up.
Their car was the cheapest model: no power anything, no radio even. I’m thinking that the song in my father’s head was not from Brahms but the Beatles:
It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter
It seems like years since it’s been clear
They left in the early afternoon, driving through the iffy DMZ between spring and winter. She wore sunglasses despite the low clouds and snow. I have to guess they talked excitedly on the way into town, down the wet road, under the railroad bridge, down Highway 30 toward Collegetown. They might have discussed the couple they were about to visit. Those folks were having “trouble,” a foil to my parents’ marriage. Maybe my mom and dad talked about the Unitarian Church where my dad was president. Certainly they talked more about the book: I overheard everything and learned by osmosis what a horror getting permissions for photos could be, an early life-lesson I carried for years (second to the one about frugality, on a par with the one getting enough protein). Our parents were now on the lee side of that major writing task they had sacrificed every moment to since we moved. Michigan seemed like a dream to me now. This morning our lawn had been thawing, melting at the roots. They were good, our parents, that afternoon. They were good. And they shared the idea, when they were sober and reasonable, that a grain of excellence, a single achievement, true evidence, derived from years of practice and observation, could outweigh everything that was backward and cruel: religion, page proofs, Vietnam, Nixon, sports, endless winters, a bad marriage. They drove off into that promise, and snow began to fall hard behind them.
Dazed from eating anything we wanted, we didn’t notice the storm come on. We were hoping to find good reruns. In Love, American Style girls wore hot pants. A guy and a girl handcuffed themselves to the bed and lost the key. A stranger and a girl in shorts got stuck in the elevator. Elsewhere, the Skipper was really angry this time. Spock could withstand the pain of two broken legs, and I tried hard to imagine being stoic like that, my voice clear and calm despite my legs lying in a crumpled mess before me. David Partridge had perfect hair. The basement TV room was papered with huge sunflower blooms on the back wall—black, yellow, orange, white. During the ads I beat on my brother, he beat on my sister. The TV shook our violent shadows over the sunflowers behind us. We ate cereal and waited for my parents to return late, valorous, reassured, triumphant.
We watched everything the TV had to offer, skipping among all three stations, glutting ourselves, but at some point in the early afternoon the power winced and the screen shrank for a moment, expanded, then shrank to a pinhole and went out along with the lights. It was suddenly dark in the basement. We sat there, amazed and dismayed, watching the TV for a long second. “The TV went off,” said my sister. And then the wind, which we had been ignoring all afternoon, became audible, blowing sidelong through the screens, making them whistle. As we rose out of our TV narcosis, we felt the wind kick the house, making it shudder as if animals were fighting on the other side of the wall. The whole structure shuddered, something we didn’t feel even during tornadoes.
Out the front window the vapor light turned on prematurely—apparently the line was still attached to the pole, and even it was dimmed by the driven snow.
With the furnace offline, the temperature inside started to drop. We went upstairs and saw that the yard had become white and strange. It was grass just a couple of hours ago, but now snow smoothed over the yard, the roads and fields. The landscape had forgotten everything it ever knew. Drifts had grown into frozen waves around the few trees, twisted around the fences that held our dogs and ducks. All over the house wind was blowing through the screens, blowing them like reeds, making an unearthly sound. I had never seen the weather change this fast. I picked up the phone and it worked, so I made some calls. It took awhile, but I reached some adults from the church.
Someone eventually reached my parents, but when they called back, we all knew it was too late. The light was almost gone and our county-line road, between Polk and Boone counties, was probably the last stretch plowed. Drifts were making the landscape alien and undrivable. I remembered reading a story at school about somebody who used a tractor to get through deep snow, but who had a tractor? Some people had those new snowmobiles, but even they would be hard to drive in this. It was getting hard to tell where fields ended and the ditches began, where the barbwire lay. We stayed upstairs, where it was warmest.
My brother heard the knock. We weren’t to let strangers in, so we walked down cautiously. I opened the front door and saw that it was the Mitchells. In the snow Larry’s beard looked gray as our father’s. He and the two women, Sandy and Arleen, were painted with snow and all three of them were tied together with a braided hemp rope. Today the Mitchells could barely get in: the snow was so deep Larry struggled to pull the storm door in a semicircle through the front porch drifts though we were on the lee side of the house. “Are you OK?” he said. “Are you having fun?” He smiled and asked if we liked the nice weather. We’d be OK up the road, he said. They had heat! He was a teacher—he worked with our dad, but was younger. His hair was long! He had two wives! He laughed as they all shuffled inside, shaking snow out of their clothes, smelling of wool and woodsmoke, and Larry told us to get all our clothes, quick! They didn’t take their coats off as they helped us put on our buckle-up rubber boots, periscope coats, mittens, scarves: everything we could put on, we did. And when we were ready, Larry tied that long hank of hemp rope first around himself, then around wife number one, and then wife number two, around my skinny thirteen-year-old waist, around my eleven-year-old brother, and finally our little sister, who was nine and heavy as a single sack of corn.
I was impatient with this fussy work. I wanted to run to their place, lead the charge, but it wasn’t going to happen that way. The wind had built fin-like drifts like those of a whale on either side of the house and the road was obliterated. As we stood on the porch under the columns, gusts pulled and pushed at us, making it hard to stand and hard to see. We left our two dogs protected in their beat-up doghouse. The chickens, the ducks, the geese—I never thought about any of them. When we were finally tethered, we set off like farm animals in the general direction of the Mitchell’s house. We tried to step in the deep footprints of the person before us and kept our hands on the rope so we would not tangle up the rope or worse, look like babies.
That wind—reports later said it was up to 70 miles per hour—tore over the snow. It took our breath away and the snow obscured our vision with white, undulating curtains. It fell in our eyes, froze against our eyelashes and brows, stuck to our faces. Larry didn’t complain about making the hike to get us and back through the storm, though it was even harder now to find the way. He too had children at home, a nine-year-old girl and a toddler. He took all the adults with him to get us, and getting back must have been darker, deeper, more abstract. All the landmarks had been airbrushed away. Even the woman ahead of me disappeared from time to time, and I resigned myself to a head-down picture of the world about the size of a dinner plate: rope, mittens, stepping feet. No up or down, no sound but the roaring wind and my own breathing hard in the hood of my coat.
The wind made us stagger and none of us looked back. At the end of the line, Sara was blown off her feet, knocked down by the wind countless times, scrambling up to be knocked down again or jerked to her knees by the rope cinched around her middle. We couldn’t speak to each other, we could hardly see each other, we never heard her cry. If she had come loose, we would never have known until we got to where we were going.
Just down the road an old man walked out from his house, maybe to check on his stock, and lost sight of his porch light. He circled looking for his own house, spiraling farther and farther from home, and died before morning. We never learned how many days later it was when his body was found.
The Mitchell’s house smelled like woodsmoke, leather, wool, and biscuits. I hadn’t come around in some time. I’d embarrassed myself the summer before and had hardly been back. Dan and Sara were native here, though. There was no television. They had a toddler, TZ, and Roberta, a girl Sara’s age. While the storm raged outside, we took off nearly all of our clothes and laid them on all the furniture near the woodstove. As they dried, the house smelled like a schoolroom, radiators piled with wool and fabric.
The younger wife and I were talking about when my parents were going to come and get us. I couldn’t pin her down to any particular day for our return. She just restated the obvious, that it started snowing only a couple of hours ago and it was going to continue all night. Nobody knew what the morning was going to be like. I tried rephrasing my question as we walked past their bathtub. I hardly noticed the big oval until she swiftly pulled down her jeans and underwear, sat on the side of the tub, stocking toes touching the floor, and kept listening to me as she urinated into the tub.
“Oh!” I said, breaking off and turning my head away, feeling the heat travel to my face, “I guess you could say this is an intersection of two worlds!”
After saying something like that, David, what do you do?
There was a pause.
“Yeah,” she said as if she were merely crouching to make a snowball. “I think it’s something you’re going to have to get used to. We’re not quite as uptight as other people.” The woman pulled up her underwear and jeans in one fell swoop, watching my face. I understood what she meant. She suspected my parents didn’t know everything. I smiled and nodded to show my disappointment in them. I had started to suspect as much on my own, that they were not as smart, not as open, not as cool as they made themselves out to be. They would never use the tub as a toilet, and that was just the beginning of their limitations.
I found the Whole Earth Catalog again, maybe the same edition I’d glanced at the year before. This time I could sit with it by the woodstove. I got the humor. I got entangled in the strange footnoted story that ran from page to page, interrupted by occasional advertisements for books on sensual massage that foregrounded lots of shoulder blades and promised more within. The black-and-white newsprint pages gave loving reviews of various tools. What makes an excellent apple peeler excellent? I found out.
We made biscuits, more than it was possible to eat, each cooked on the woodstove, and ate them all. A line of stacked wood to feed the stove through the winter reached out from the side of the house toward the stock pens. We listened to music that evening and started again the next day, some baby songs, some rock and roll. The Mitchells had many of the same records as my parents, but they sounded different here. Here the songs sounded like celebrations. And we danced here, shaking like banshees. “Looser,” my brother shouted to me, in a darkened room with other kids around. “You gotta let it all out,” he said, shaking and wobbling to the stars, sitars, and guitars. I tried. I really tried. But I wasn’t that loose. I rattled when I shook.
That night the kids slept in a flotilla of mattresses on the floor. The women slept with Larry and the kids made lots of noise in our section of the second floor. Being so much older and wiser, I tried to make them be quiet. I also wanted to see Number Two Wife finish at the tub again, pulling her pants up over her hips as she stood.
Later, when the house is quiet, I surface from my dreams, thinking again about my mother and Frank Sinatra. I am walking by the living room on my way to bed and she calls to me. She says, “Come here. David.” The words are a little slurry. She is holding on tight to both arms of the chair, a cigarette clothes-pinned by the fingers of her right hand. Her thin blue nightgown barely covers her thighs. Somehow everyone else in the house is asleep and I try to remember what happened the last few days. “Listen to this. With me,” she commands. “Sad.”
My dad: Did he come home? Had they gone to a party the night before? My memory has been trimmed short. Yeah—over the weekend there had been a fight, some sort of argument, now tumbling in the distance. On the console’s record player, Sinatra’s The Wee Hours of the Morning cycles on repeat. The needle is fuzzy with lint and the notes of Sinatra’s voice are blurred. When she pulls on a cigarette, her face emerges out of the shadows in a red glow then disappears as she exhales. She sits, I stand. We listen. His voice is low on the stereo: “When your lonely heart has learned its lesson,” he croons. There are interludes of distorted strings and pauses between the tracks. After a while, without wanting to, I start to get the music, the emptiness of the city, the heartache, everyone else in the world asleep. The blue-grey of loneliness. The grainy roughness of his voice, streets in the fall, the consolation of suffering. My mom’s face appears again as she takes a deep drag on her Salem, then she blows the invisible smoke into the middle of the room. The record stops and the arm creaks over to start again at the first track. She doesn’t notice when I leave the room.
By the next day or week, she is in the hospital. My father tells me this after school, furious, crashing the pots and pans as he makes some improvised supper. Apparently she has overdosed on something, maybe alcohol, I never thought to ask. Or was this when they come home late and he locks her out, when she bangs on the door until her fist breaks through one of the little glass panes, when somehow, pulling her hand back, she cuts the artery in her wrist? The blood is phenomenal, the rush to the hospital, lots of really bad luck. Just bad luck, and I quit being such a baby about the ducks in the back lot that disappear or hating the animals that feed on them—raccoon, fox, coyote, skunk, weasel, hawk, dog, possum. You never can tell exactly what happened the night before. Before she returns home, my dad has us take pans from the kitchen, fill them with warm sudsy water, and scrub up her blood from the porch, the foyer, the rug. I don’t know why he wants us to do it. There is a lot of blood and the water becomes pink over and over again.
Then she is back and she makes supper. And it is spring.
When we woke the next morning at our neighbors’ house, all roads were impassable; a road grader had got stuck somewhere down toward Ames, the biggest piece of machinery either county had. Downstairs stood a spinning wheel they used to make yarn, a hand pump for kitchen water, the endless Whole Earth Catalog.
Larry and the older wife brought a big two-burner contraption in from some shed. The burners were low on the floor, and two gleaming metal trash cans fit in the circles. The two of them went outside and filled one garbage can with water, struggling to wrestle it through the door, cold wind rushing in across the floor. They were able to set the can neatly on one of the burner contraptions. Then they got a canful for the other side. Heating up two trash cans of water takes hours, and pouring it into a tub isn’t easy, but it makes what was once just water into bath water. I don’t remember who went first, but I got my turn, and it made me smell like Ivory Soap and a little less like a small gopher. In fact, everyone smelled good, like wool and wood and soap.
That evening, while they told stories by the woodstove, I got dressed to go outside again.
“I don’t get what you’re doing,” the younger wife said. “Didn’t you have enough already?” She was irritated to see me waste energy on useless things, and she didn’t understand why I would want to be alone. But I had been thinking about my parents, how dumb and uptight they were, and I had the feeling you get when you throw something away by accident, have it taken away in the trash and now it’s everywhere and nowhere. I wondered if the people inside this tiny house could read it on me, that I had laughed at my parents. That I agreed my parents weren’t so smart. Or cool. Or if anyone could tell that I missed them. Or that there was trouble they should never know about. In the snow my thoughts would be inaudible.
The storm had slowed by the second evening and the entire world had been newly made. I climbed a drift and somersaulted down. I climbed up to fall backward: you could let yourself hit the snow hard and it didn’t hurt but you would almost disappear. I climbed to the top of a drift and stood there, listening. Dim ridged drifts redrew the landscape. The very near sounds from my breathing and heart mixed with distant sounds, that of a tractor, maybe, off near the horizon. The percussive noise was barely loud enough to hear, pulsing over the blue snow until it stilled and I became entirely alone again. I watched the snow become darker purple. There was a moon or I invented a moon that came out occasionally and clouds poured under it. I got the sense it was always strange like this. If you looked close enough. My thinking slowed in the cold. Images of my mother smoking, of Frank Sinatra’s loneliness emerged without words. I only remembered those feelings when I was entirely alone or, the next year, when I was entirely drunk.
Our parents were stranded in town for three days. When they returned late in the afternoon, we went back to our house and my father handed me a shovel.
“It’s been too long,” he said to me. “She can’t be alive, but we have to get her out.” One dog was waiting for us, sitting on top of a good six feet of drifted snow. The other one had opted to hide in the doghouse. She’d been buried under the snow for days.
I remember it was bright. The buckles on my boots jangled because I was too rushed to clasp them all.
We dug steadily. Six feet is a long ways. I wondered how gravediggers could ever get through hardened earth. I was using a clunky garden shovel anyway, and it wasn’t working so well. I had seen a lot of animals die. Some died slowly from mysterious illnesses. Others were killed quickly by some nocturnal carnivore, and I pictured their last seconds of terror and terrible pain. Was that better or worse than suffocating over several days?
Under us there was a sound. My father and I stopped abruptly, each leaning on his shovel, trying to breathe slowly, looking at each other, watching the other’s face. Then we heard it again.
We dug frantically toward the doghouse. As we got closer and the snow thinned, the distant barking got clearer. I was crying for real now. I was crying because the dumb dog could survive but my mother might not and I had no idea how to make her.