Every place that I could name you, in the whole world around us, has better things about it than Argus, North Dakota. I just happened to grow up there for eighteen years, and the soil got to be part of me, the air has something in it that I breathed. Argus water doesn’t taste as good as water in the cities. Still, the first thing I do, walking back into my mother’s house, is stand at the kitchen sink and toss down glass after glass.
“Are you filled up?” My mother stands behind me. “Sit down if you are.”
She’s tall and board-square, French-Chippewa, with long arms and big knuckles. Her face is rawboned, fierce, and almost masculine in its edges and planes. Several months ago, a beauty operator convinced her that she should feminize her look with curls. Now the permanent, grown out in grizzled streaks, bristles like the coat of a terrier. I don’t look like her. Not just the hair, since hers is salt-and-pepper and mine is a reddish brown, but my build. I’m short, boxy, more like my Aunt Mary. Like her, I can’t seem to shake this town. I keep coming back here.
“There’s jobs at the beet plant,” my mother says.
This rumor, probably false, since the plant is in a slump, drops into the dim, close air of the kitchen. We have the shades drawn because it’s a hot June, over a hundred degrees, and we’re trying to stay cool. Outside, the water has been sucked from everything. The veins in the leaves are hollow, the ditch grass is crackling. The sky has absorbed every drop. It’s a thin whitish-blue veil stretched from end to end over us, a flat gauze tarp. From the depot, I’ve walked here beneath it, dragging my suitcase.
We’re sweating as if we’re in an oven, a big messy one. For a week, it’s been too hot to clean much or even move, and the crops are stunted, failing. The farmer next to us just sold his field for a subdivision, but the construction workers aren’t doing much. They’re wearing wet rags on their heads, sitting near the house sites in the brilliance of noon. The studs of wood stand upright over them, but uselessly—nothing casts shadows. The sun has dried them up, too.
“The beet plant,” my mother says again.
“Maybe so,” I say, and then, because I’ve got something bigger on my mind, “Maybe I’ll go out there and apply.”
“Oh?” She is intrigued now.
“God, this is terrible!” I take the glass of water in my hand and tip some onto my head. I don’t feel cooler, though; I just feel the steam rising off me.
“The fan broke down,” she states. “Both of them are kaput now. The motors or something. If Mary would get the damn tax refund, we’d run out to Pamida, buy a couple more, set up a breeze. Then we’d be cool out here.”
“Your garden must be dead,” I say, lifting the edge of the pull shade.
“It’s sick, but I watered. And I won’t mulch; that draws the damn slugs.”
“Nothing could live out there, no bug.” My eyes smart from even looking at the yard, which is a clear sheet of sun, almost incandescent.
“You’d be surprised.”
I wish I could blurt it out, just tell her. Even now, the words swell in my mouth, the one sentence, but I’m scared, and with good reason. There is this about my mother: it is awful to see her angry. Her lips press together and she stiffens herself within, growing wooden, silent. Her features become fixed and remote, she will not speak. It takes a long time, and until she does you are held in suspense. Nothing that she ever says, in the end, is as bad as that feeling of dread. So I wait, half believing that she’ll figure out my secret for herself, or drag it out of me, not that she ever tries. If I’m silent, she hardly notices. She’s not like Aunt Mary, who forces me to say more than I know is on my mind.
My mother sighs. “It’s too hot to bake. It’s too hot to cook. But it’s too hot to eat anyway.”
She’s talking to herself, which makes me reckless. Perhaps she is so preoccupied by the heat that I can slip my announcement past her. I should just say it, but I lose nerve, make an introduction that alerts her. “I have something to tell you.”
I’ve cast my lot; there’s no going back unless I think quickly. My thoughts hum.
“Ice,” I say. “We have to have ice.” I speak intensely, leaning toward her, almost glaring, but she is not fooled.
“Don’t make me laugh,” she says. “There’s not a cube in town. The refrigerators can’t keep cold enough.” She eyes me the way a hunter eyes an animal about to pop from its den and run.
“O.K.” I break down. “I really do have something.” I stand, turn my back. In this lightless warmth I’m dizzy, almost sick. Now I’ve gotten to her and she’s frightened to hear, breathless.
“Tell me,” she urges. “Go on, get it over with.”
And so I say it. “I got married.” There is a surge of relief, a wind blowing through the room, but then it’s gone. The curtain flaps and we’re caught again, stunned in an even denser heat. It’s now my turn to wait, and I whirl around and sit right across from her. Now is the time to tell her his name, a Chippewa name that she’ll know from the papers, since he’s notorious. Now is the time to get it over with. But I can’t bear the picture she makes, the shock that parts her lips, the stunned shade of hurt in her eyes. I have to convince her, somehow, that it’s all right.
“You hate weddings! Just think, just picture it. Me, white net. On a day like this. You, stuffed in your summer wool, and Aunt Mary, God knows . . . and the tux, the rental, the groom . . .”
Her heat had lowered as my words fell on her, but now her forehead tips up and her eyes come into view, already hardening. My tongue flies back into my mouth.
She mimics, making it a question, “The groom . . .”
I’m caught, my lips half open, a stuttering noise in my throat. How to begin? I have rehearsed this, but my lines melt away, my opening, my casual introductions. I can think of nothing that would convince her of how much more he is than the captions beneath the photos. There is no picture adequate, no representation that captures him. So I just put my hand across the table and I touch her hand. “Mother,” I say, as if we’re in a staged drama, “he’ll arrive here shortly.”
There is something forming in her, some reaction. I am afraid to let it take complete shape. “Let’s go out and wait on the steps, Mom. Then you’ll see him.”
“I do not understand,” she says in a frighteningly neutral voice. This is what I mean. Everything is suddenly forced, unnatural—we’re reading lines.
“He’ll approach from a distance.” I can’t help speaking like a bad actor. “I told him to give me an hour. He’ll wait, then he’ll come walking down the road.”
We rise and unstick our blouses from our stomachs, our skirts from the backs of our legs. Then we walk out front in single file, me behind, and settle ourselves on the middle step. A scrubby box-elder tree on one side casts a light shade, and the dusty lilacs seem to catch a little breeze on the other. It’s not so bad out here, still hot, but not so dim, contained. It is worse past the trees. The heat shimmers in a band, rising off the fields, out of the spars and bones of houses that will wreck our view. The horizon and the edge of town show through the gaps in the framing now, and as we sit we watch the workers move, slowly, almost in a practiced recital, back and forth. Their headcloths hang to their shoulders, their hard hats are dabs of yellow, their white T-shirts blend into the fierce air and sky. They don’t seem to be doing anything, although we hear faint thuds from their hammers. Otherwise, except for the whistles of a few birds, there is silence. Certainly we don’t speak.
It is a longer wait than I anticipated, maybe because he wants to give me time. At last the shadows creep out, hard, hot, charred, and the heat begins to lengthen and settle. We are going into the worst of the afternoon when a dot at the end of the road begins to form.
Mom and I are both watching. We have not moved our eyes around much, and we blink and squint to try and focus. The dot doesn’t change, not for a long while. And then it suddenly springs clear in relief—a silhouette, lost for a moment in the shimmer, reappearing. In that shining expanse he is a little wedge of moving shade. He continues, growing imperceptibly, until there are variations in the outline, and it can be seen that he is large. As he passes the construction workers, they turn and stop, all alike in their hats, stock-still.
Growing larger yet, as if he has absorbed their stares, he nears us. Now we can see the details. He is dark, the first thing. His arms are thick, his chest is huge, and the features of his face are wide and open. He carries nothing in his hands. He wears a black T-shirt, the opposite of the construction workers, and soft jogging shoes. His jeans are held under his stomach by a belt with a star beaded on the buckle. His hair is long, in a tail. I am the wrong woman for him. I am paler, shorter, un-magnificent. But I stand up. Mom joins me, and I answer proudly when she asks, “His name?”
“His name is Gerry—” Even now I can’t force his last name through my lips. But Mom is distracted by the sight of him anyway.
We descend one step, and stop again. It is here we will receive him. Our hands are folded at our waists. We’re balanced, composed. He continues to stroll toward us, his white smile widening, his eyes filling with the sight of me as mine are filling with him. At the end of the road behind him, another dot has appeared. It is fast-moving and the sun flares off it twice: a vehicle. Now there are two figures—one approaching in a spume of dust from the rear, and Gerry, unmindful, not slackening or quickening his pace, continuing on. It is like a choreography design. They move at parallel speeds in front of our eyes. Then, at the same moment, at the end of our yard, they conclude the performance; both of them halt.
Gerry stands, looking toward us, his thumbs in his belt. He nods respectfully to Mom, looks calmly at me, and half smiles. He raises his brows, and we’re suspended. Officer Lovchik emerges from the police car, stooped and tired. He walks up behind Gerry and I hear the snap of handcuffs, then I jump. I’m stopped by Gerry’s gaze, though, as he backs away from me, still smiling tenderly. I am paralyzed halfway down the walk. He kisses the air while Lovchik cautiously prods at him, fitting his prize into the car. And then the doors slam, the engine roars, and they back out and turn around. As they move away there is no siren. I think I’ve heard Lovchik mention questioning. I’m sure it is lots of fuss for nothing, a mistake, but it cannot be denied—this is terrible timing.
I shake my shoulders, smooth my skirt, and turn to my mother with a look of outrage. “How do you like that?” I try.
She’s got her purse in one hand, her car keys out.
“Let’s go,” she says.
“O.K.,” I answer. “Fine. Where?”
“I’d rather go and bail him out, Mom.”
“Bail,” she says. “Bail?”
She gives me such a look of cold and furious surprise that I sink immediately into the front seat, lean back against the vinyl. I almost welcome the sting of the heated plastic on my back, thighs, shoulders.
Aunt Mary lives at the rear of the butcher shop she runs. As we walk toward the “House of Meats,” her dogs are rugs in the dirt, flattened by the heat of the day. Not one of them barks at us to warn her. We step over them and get no more reaction than a whine, the slow beat of a tail. Inside, we get no answers either, although we call Aunt Mary up and down the hall. We enter the kitchen and sit at the table, which holds a half-ruined watermelon. By the sink, in a tin box, are cigarettes. My mother takes one and carefully puts a match to it, frowning. “I know what,” she says. “Go check the lockers.”
There are two—a big freezer full of labelled meats and rental space, and another, smaller one that is just a side cooler. I notice, walking past the meat display counter, that the red beacon beside the outside switch of the cooler is glowing. That tells you when the light is on inside.
I pull the long metal handle toward me and the thick door swishes open. I step into the cool, spicy air. Aunt Mary is there, too proud to ever register a hint of surprise. She simply nods and looks away as though I’ve just been out for a minute, although we’ve not seen one another in six months or more. She is relaxing on a big can of pepper labelled “Zanzibar,” reading a scientific-magazine article. I sit down on a barrel of alum. With no warning, I drop my bomb: “I’m married.” It doesn’t matter how I tell it to Aunt Mary, because she won’t be, refuses to be, surprised.
“What’s he do?” she simply asks, putting aside the sheaf of paper. I thought the first thing she’d do was scold me for fooling my mother. But it’s odd, for two women who have lived through boring times and disasters, how rarely one comes to the other’s defense, and how often they are each willing to take advantage of the other’s absence. But I’m benefitting here. It seems that Aunt Mary is truly interested in Gerry. So I’m honest.
“He’s something like a political activist. I mean he’s been in jail and all. But not for any crime, you see; it’s just because of his convictions.”
She gives me a long, shrewd stare. Her skin is too tough to wrinkle, but she doesn’t look young. All around us hang loops of sausages, every kind you can imagine, every color, from the purple-black of blutwurst to the pale-whitish links that my mother likes best. Blocks of butter and headcheese, a can of raw milk, wrapped parcels, and cured bacons are stuffed onto the shelves around us. My heart has gone still and cool inside me, and I can’t stop talking.
“He’s the kind of guy it’s hard to describe. Very different. People call him a free spirit, but that doesn’t say it either, because he’s very disciplined in some ways. He learned to be neat in jail.” I pause. She says nothing, so I go on. “I know it’s sudden, but who likes weddings? I hate them—all that mess with the bridesmaids’ gowns, getting material to match. I don’t have girlfriends. I mean, how embarrassing, right? Who would sing ‘O Perfect Love’? Carry the ring?”
She isn’t really listening.
“What’s he do?” she asks again.
Maybe she won’t let go of it until I discover the right answer, like a game with nouns and synonyms.
“He—well, he agitates,” I tell her.
“Is that some kind of factory work?”
“Not exactly, no, it’s not a nine-to-five job or anything . . .”
She lets the magazine fall, now, cocks her head to one side, and stares at me without blinking her cold yellow eyes. She has the look of a hawk, of a person who can see into the future but won’t tell you about it. She’s lost business for staring at customers, but she doesn’t care.
“Are you telling me that he doesn’t . . .” Here she shakes her head twice, slowly, from one side to the other, without removing me from her stare. “That he doesn’t have regular work?”
“Oh, what’s the matter, anyway?” I say roughly. “I’ll work. This is the nineteen-seventies.”
She jumps to her feet, stands over me—a stocky woman with terse features and short, thin points of gray hair. Her earrings tremble and flash—small fiery opals. Her brown plastic glasses hang crooked on a cord around her neck. I have never seen her become quite so instantly furious, so disturbed. “We’re going to fix that,” she says.
The cooler immediately feels smaller, the sausages knock at my shoulder, and the harsh light makes me blink. I am as stubborn as Aunt Mary, however, and she knows that I can go head to head with her. “We’re married and that’s final.” I manage to stamp my foot.
Aunt Mary throws an arm back, blows air through her cheeks, and waves away my statement vigorously. “You’re a little girl. How old is he?”
I frown at my lap, trace the threads in my blue cotton skirt, and tell her that age is irrelevant.
“Big word,” she says sarcastically. “Let me ask you this. He’s old enough to get a job?”
“Of course he is; what do you think? O.K., he’s older than me. He’s in his thirties.”
“Aha, I knew it.”
“Geez! So what? I mean, haven’t you ever been in love, hasn’t someone ever gotten you right here?” I smash my fist on my chest.
We lock eyes, but she doesn’t waste a second in feeling hurt. “Sure, sure I’ve been in love. You think I haven’t? I know what it feels like, you smart-ass. You’d be surprised. But he was no lazy son of a bitch. Now, listen . . .” She stops, draws breath, and I let her. “Here’s what I mean by ‘fix.’ I’ll teach the sausage-making trade to him—to you, too—and the grocery business. I’ve about had it anyway, and so’s your mother. We’ll do the same as my aunt and uncle—leave the shop to you and move to Arizona. I like this place.” She looks up at the burning safety bulb, down at me again. Her face drags in the light. “But what the hell. I always wanted to travel.”
I’m stunned, a little flattened out, maybe ashamed of myself. “You hate going anywhere,” I say, which is true.
The door swings open and Mom comes in with us. She finds a milk can and balances herself on it, sighing at the delicious feeling of the air, absorbing from the silence the fact that we have talked. She hasn’t anything to add, I guess, and as the coolness hits, her eyes fall shut. Aunt Mary’s, too. I can’t help it, either, and my eyelids drop, although my brain is conscious and alert. From the darkness, I can see us in the brilliance. The light rains down on us. We sit the way we have been sitting, on our cans of milk and pepper, upright and still. Our hands are curled loosely in our laps. Our faces are blank as the gods’. We could be statues in a tomb sunk into the side of a mountain. We could be dreaming the world up in our brains.
It is later, and the weather has no mercy. We are drained of everything but simple thoughts. It’s too hot for feelings. Driving home, we see how field after field of beets has gone into shock, and even some of the soybeans. The plants splay, limp, burned into the ground. Only the sunflowers continue to struggle upright, bristling but small.
What drew me in the first place to Gerry was the unexpected. I went to hear him talk just after I enrolled at the university, and then I demonstrated when they came and got him off the stage. He always went so willingly, accommodating everyone. I began to visit him. I sold lunar calendars and posters to raise his bail and eventually free him. One thing led to another, and one night we found ourselves alone in a Howard Johnson’s coffee shop downstairs from where they put him up when his speech was finished. There were much more beautiful women after him; he could have had his pick of Swedes or Yankton Sioux girls, who are the best-looking of all. But I was different, he says. He liked my slant on life. And then there was no going back once it started, no turning, as though it was meant. We had no choice.
I have this intuition as we near the house, in the fateful quality of light, as in the turn of the day the heat continues to press and the blackness, into which the warmth usually lifts, lowers steadily: We must come to the end of something; there must be a close to this day.
As we turn into the yard we see that Gerry is sitting on the porch stairs. Now it is our turn to be received. I throw the car door open and stumble out before the motor even cuts. I run to him and hold him, as my mother, pursuing the order of events, parks carefully. Then she walks over, too, holding her purse by the strap. She stands before him and says no word but simply looks into his face, staring as if he’s cardboard, a man behind glass who cannot see her. I think she’s rude, but then I realize that he is staring back, that they are the same height. Their eyes are level.
He puts his hand out. “My name is Gerry.”
She nods, shifts her weight. “You’re from that line, the old strain, the ones . . .” She does not finish.
“And my father,” Gerry says, “was Old Man Pillager.”
“Kashpaws,” she says, “are my branch, of course. We’re probably related through my mother’s brother.” They do not move. They are like two opponents from the same divided country, staring across the border. They do not shift or blink, and I see that they are more alike than I am like either one of them—so tall, solid, dark-haired. They could be mother and son.
“Well, I guess you should come in,” she offers. “You are a distant relative, after all.” She looks at me. “Distant enough.”
Whole swarms of mosquitoes are whining down, discovering us now, so there is no question of staying where we are. And so we walk into the house, much hotter than outside, with the gathered heat. Instantly the sweat springs from our skin and I can think of nothing else but cooling off. I try to force the windows higher in their sashes, but there’s no breeze anyway; nothing stirs, no air.
“Are you sure,’’ I gasp, “about those fans?”
“Oh, they’re broke, all right,” my mother says, distressed. I rarely hear this in her voice. She switches on the lights, which makes the room seem hotter, and we lower ourselves into the easy chairs. Our words echo, as though the walls have baked and dried hollow.
My mother points toward the kitchen. “They’re sitting on the table. I’ve already tinkered with them. See what you can do.”
And so he does. After a while she hoists herself and walks out back to him. Their voices close together now, absorbed, and their tools clank frantically, as if they are fighting a duel. But it is a race with the bell of darkness and their waning energy. I think of ice. I get ice on the brain.
“Be right back,” I call out, taking the car keys from my mother’s purse. “Do you need anything?”
There is no answer from the kitchen but a furious sputter of metal, the clatter of nuts and bolts spilling to the floor.
I drive out to the Superpumper, a big new gas-station complex on the edge of town, where my mother most likely has never been. She doesn’t know about convenience stores, has no credit cards for groceries or gas, pays only with small bills and change. She never has used an ice machine. It would grate on her that a bag of frozen water costs eighty cents, but it doesn’t bother me. I take the plastic-foam cooler and I fill it for a couple of dollars. I buy two six-packs of Shasta soda and I plunge them in among the uniform coins of ice. I drink two myself on the way home, and I manage to lift the whole heavy cooler out of the trunk, carry it to the door.
The fans are whirring, beating the air. I hear them going in the living room the minute I come in. The only light shines from the kitchen. Gerry and my mother have thrown the pillows from the couch onto the living-room floor, and they are sitting in the rippling currents of air. I bring the cooler in and put it near us. I have chosen all dark flavors—black cherry, grape, red berry, cola—so as we drink the darkness swirls inside us with the night air, sweet and sharp, driven by small motors.
I drag more pillows down from the other rooms upstairs. There is no question of attempting the bedrooms, the stifling beds. And so, in the dark, I hold hands with Gerry as he settles down between my mother and me. He is huge as a hill between the two of us, solid in the beating wind. ♦