They drove through flat Iowa farmland, her family awaiting. Corn seemed a flat sea riding out to the horizon. Farms at first distant and small, all the same.
Iowa is a grid, she said. All right angles and straight lines.
Her body hummed with anticipation. The car dusted snow behind it on the country highway. Grain silos like mechanical growths disrupted the landscape. One of her ovaries was removed a month ago and a light seemed to go out of her. They were thirty, thirty-one. She thinned down to someone he didn’t know, and his own fears awakened. He tried to leave. She called him a coward and he crawled back and took care of her. Her mother could not afford the flight to visit.
When I was eight, my father sent our dog to his father, to the farm in Connecticut, he said. Missouri was so far away. I’ve told you this before. The dog had eaten a Gucci purse, a bottle of orange juice, and part of a sofa. My father was through. His father kept the dog in a barn. The dog ate beef scraps and escaped his chain often, returning bloodied with dead squirrels. I once cried after visiting that dog. My father sat silent, driving me home.
Oh, she said.
Years later my father said the dog ate a purse and shat a billfold.
My family lives flatly, like how Iowa is, she taught him.
He’d seen for himself. Both grandparents stooped. Low to the ground so that the wind, when it swept, wouldn’t sweep them away.
My mother is a blank of sadness, she said. Then she’ll drink and tell you how she quit smoking after being in the hospital for four days with water in her lungs. She’ll tell you that right after that, she dropped her second husband too. That the sickness cleared everything up. Just like that, she’ll flick her wrist. Done. My mother will beam.
My father taught me to box when I was ten, he said. He roped off a ring in the backyard, Ozark woods behind the house. When I was seventeen we fought in the kitchen then the laundry room over an older girl I was seeing. I walked out of the house after bloodying his eye and after he’d bloodied mine. The washing machine was upended somehow, soap and water on the floor. It’s a memory I have remade relentlessly: I walked into the forest behind our house, down past the creek to the dirt road, with my eye bloody. I shivered with cold, went numb with it, in just a t-shirt and jeans. My father found me on his ATV late in the night, snow falling. The world gone a beautiful black and white. That crisp snow. His warm hand around the back of my neck. He carried me to the ATV and gave me his coat and said my name over and over.
My mother had me at eighteen in Arizona, she said. The heat, the heat was something beyond heat. My mother worked on a reservation, Navajo. When it was take your kids to work day, the people on the res stared at us. Red hair. My mother told me it was because I was beautiful. She was lying. I was afraid for her when I was old enough to be afraid. That I had made her flicker out too soon, too young.
No, no, he said.
My sister couldn’t walk into the hospital where my mother’s chest had been cracked open, he said. A hole in her heart and a valve in some chamber needed repair. My mother had shrunk down so far, I could no longer feel who she was. My sister wouldn’t even try. My father was a great man then, in that hospital room. I could do nothing except watch his hands, which were my hands. They touched everything. My mother’s forehead and hair. To my sister he told jokes, coaxed her like a stray dog and held her hand through the hospital halls until she firmly planted herself in the corner of my mother’s room. She took not one breath.
I escaped the babysitter’s attention and sat for a day and a night in a sewer with a neighbor’s beagle, she said. My mother found me in the sewer not fifteen minutes after she had returned from her trip.
I once slipped into her neighbor’s strawberry patch, she said. Me and a girl named Dani Duris ate strawberry after strawberry. When my tongue swelled up, Dani got her father, who rushed us to the hospital. My mother was already there when we arrived because her new boyfriend was a nurse. I didn’t know about the boyfriend thing for years.
They remembered: a rabbit once stole our vegetables. A man once stole our music. A hurricane once stole our coast, in Mississippi. So our first move was to a mountain, which boxed us in.
It reminded me of the time my father upended us for one of his dreams, he said. My sister and I learned that he had been married before. We could not conjure his other life. I told my sister they were both liars and we believed me.
Don’t compare our life with your old life, she said.
I don’t know how to step cleanly away from my mother, she said. And you have the same problem with your father.
They shouted and broke the car and themselves apart over this.
They remembered: burying two dogs, three cats, and killing one deer.
I shot that deer perfect, she said.
I couldn’t believe your mother came with us, he said. I wouldn’t hold a gun and my face was flushed for days.
We ate the meat when Katrina dropped a tree through our house, they said. The power was gone for three weeks, so we had sex often and feverishly. A red star descended the horizon in the evening, a green one in the morning. A half-inch of water pooled on the kitchen floor. It is impossible to explain how wonderful this was.
Something they tell: we once stole a jon boat from a Kentucky home and rowed it across Lake Cumberland to get to a waterfall. The water was freezing in that fall, even in summer. Our bodies lit up with cold, then heat. We dared to see who could sit in the fall longer. There were no winners, in together, out together. We rowed back and a storm swept over the lake. We argued and yelled and were pushed off course and the boat sagged with water. So many things that we don’t remember the how or why, only the effect. Water splashed over the sides of the boat and we put on the lifejackets. We were desperate to put on lifejackets. Then we showed up into ourselves, which is what you do, rowing hard, bailing water. It took a long time, but we hit shore.
Her mother laughed and shook her head, his father said good.