Authors: J. T. Dutton
This book is for Zoe,
who I love like the moon and sun.
“This night it shall be granted to you to know their secret deeds;…how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones!—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral.”
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown”
JUST BEFORE I LEFT DES MOINES, MY BEST FRIEND, Katy,â¦
NANA WELCOMED US AT HER DOOR WHEN WE arrived andâ¦
LATER THAT DAY, NATALIE'S AND MY SHARED bedroom still wasn'tâ¦
NATALIE STARED AT THE GIN. I'M SURE A MEMORY surfacedâourâ¦
NATALIE HAD GOTTEN PREGNANT IN THE SPRING without realizing it.
ONE GOOD THING ABOUT LYNN STREET WAS THAT we wereâ¦
ON MONDAY MORNING, I GATHERED PENS AND notebooks and preparedâ¦
ERNIE MAY HAVE CHOSEN HIS ROUTE TO COLLECT the largestâ¦
IN A CHOICE BETWEEN TRUTH OR DARE, KATY always pickedâ¦
WHEN THE MEN WHO KIDNAPPED KENNY LEFT and the doorâ¦
THE REST OF THE DAY, EVERYONE AT CARRIE Nation steeredâ¦
ALTHOUGH THE DOG (OR WHATEVER IT WAS) was wagging itsâ¦
MAYBE I SHOULDN'T HAVE FOUGHT MY COUSIN. Maybe I shouldâ¦
THE AFTERNOON HAD BEEN ONE IN WHICH surprises abounded likeâ¦
IN AN ENTRY IN NATALIE'S DIARY, I READ THAT ONâ¦
“WANT TO HAVE SEX?” KENNY ASKED.
KENNY DIDN'T KISS ME GOOD-BYE OR EVEN TELL me heâ¦
KENNY HADN'T EXACTLY STOLEN ANYTHING from me I hadn't handedâ¦
“ME?” I ASKED. “YOU.”
MR. GRUBER DROVE ME TO THE SHERIFF'S OFFICE, and Mom arrivedâ¦
“COULD I HAVE POSSIBLY DONE SOMETHING WITH the soap?” Iâ¦
JUST BEFORE I LEFT DES MOINES, MY BEST FRIEND,
Katy, said, “Whatever you do, don’t have sex with your brother.”
“OK,” I responded, and lobbed a smart ball over her net. “I’ll just have sex with
“I don’t have one,” Katy reminded me.
My mother thrummed her fingers on the steering wheel.
“Kelly Louise.” Mom wanted me to climb into the U-Haul.
Mom and I were moving to Heaven, Iowa (three hours away), to live with my nana and my cousin Natalie for a few months. That week a story had been in the news. A farmer near Heaven found an infant in his cornfield. The baby had died just after birth, and
no one knew who her mother was.
Pretty bizarro—a baby slipping from someone’s body without anyone noticing. The media named her Grace and told her story so often the clouds above Tama County seemed to rain babies. I imagined shopping at the Jack and Jill, Heaven’s only grocery store. I pictured reaching for a can of cream of mushroom soup on a high shelf and a baby falling out.
Maybe because I was getting ready to move to Heaven, I admitted what was going through my head to Katy.
“It’s pretty gross,” I added.
“Really gross, Kelly Louise.” Katy wrinkled her nose.
Katy and I stood on the driveway while my mother waited for us to finish.
“Imagine if it were twins,” Katy said.
“Oh no,” I speculated.
Mom tapped the horn and told me we were going to be late.
Katy and I sometimes thought what happened to other people was hilarious, especially when it occurred in one of those places where you might sleep with your brother.
When I wasn’t with my best friend, I worried about less weird issues: climate change, rising air and water
temperatures, and killer F2 tornadoes, but when Katy and I were together we discussed strange sexual habits and shared details about killer monkeys. Our English teacher had asked us each to diagram a sentence a few days earlier, and we both used Heath Ledger for a subject and words not allowed in school as a predicate. (We texted each other to match.) We left complicated discussions for the experts who could probably handle them. I wanted someone to step in and save us from global destruction, refreeze the polar ice caps, or invent a solar-charged battery, but no one had yet.
Mom named me Kelly Louise after the actress Tina Louise, who played Ginger the movie star on the thousand-year-old show
. When Tina Louise shimmied close to her male costars, they thumped their heads on palm trees, or spilled their coconut drinks. Meanwhile, the Professor (the hottest man on the island) designed an exercise bike that produced electrical power. Katy explained that Ginger sexually inspired the Professor and that was why he was so clever. She said our contributions to humanity would be similar to Ginger’s in a few months, when more of us developed.
I was quite hopeful.
Mom promised our move to Heaven was temporary, but with Mom some things lasted longer than
she intended. For example, one of her boyfriends, named Bob, stayed for breakfast once and drank our milk straight from the carton. A month at Nana’s was fine, but four threatened to stall my Tina Louise-ness and plans to save the world. Nana’s standards were intense, and Natalie, as attractive as she was in the body department, suffered spasms of wrongishness that could make her strangely attached to corduroy pants and shirts with buttons. My only hope was to inspire her, if not to Super-Ginger-ism at least to more likable behavior and interesting hairstyles.
I pulled my sweater sleeves over my palms and hugged Katy. Katy and I were very Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Me. I was going to miss being in her emotional space.
Mom started the engine of the truck. The exhaust pumped carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.
I let go of my best friend and clambered into the passenger seat and shut the door.
Katy shouted more advice for country living as we pulled away: “Don’t start wearing plaid!”
“Don’t fart in math class!” I yelled in response. She had once.
“Look out.” Mom pressed the button that shut the window.
Mom maneuvered the truck into a cross street, slowed for a light on Warren Avenue, and, when the signal changed, eased us toward the roundabout ramp of I-80. She hadn’t told me why we were moving to Nana’s. Mom could overly concern herself with the strange habits of killer monkeys, or at least with problems that worked themselves out on their own. She might have forgotten to pay the rent or couldn’t wheedle the landlord into an extension on the months we still owed. Or maybe Mom’s manager at Urban Hair had cut her hours—Mom complained enough about work that I had begun to think she would be happier selling Avon products.
Mom revealed all her little secrets in time and always gave me a manicure when she confessed something terrible. She would want to settle back into safe, comfortable Des Moines after she smoothed whatever life wrinkle was making us leave. She had dropped out of high school to have me, moved to Des Moines to raise me, and whipped bowls of Jell-O on the spur of the moment if they seemed needed. Not every Mom is as talented, or has such naturally thick barrel curls.
She covered my hand with hers and squeezed. “We will be back before you know it,” she assured me.
I smiled and returned her tug.
We were very close, Mom and me, maybe because
she had raised me without anyone’s help. She told me once that I had come from the planet Schmoo, a thing I thought was pretty cute. A large family would have been confusing. I would have hated having to share accessories—which I heard could happen if you had sisters.
Morning traffic stacked behind our slow-moving load and my thoughts drifted to how far we were moving from Des Moines, how much I was going to miss Katy, how life had been fabolicious the last few weeks even though I had made a mistake in the sentence-diagramming arena. Katy and I at least grasped sex, a topic that Natalie, who was four months older than me, struggled with. The internet had been a very valuable learning tool in our studies.
Mom brushed hair out of her eyes and talked about what Heaven was like when she was fifteen. I had heard her memories before when we made holiday visits. Mom rode with her friends down farm roads to late-season parties in the cornfields and let loose a cage of turkeys once during a Heaven Hog Fest Parade. Mom described her years in Heaven as a series of rungs she climbed until she reached the height of Carrie Nation High School as prom queen. Not long afterward, she became pregnant with me, her little darling Schmoo.
I asked questions about Mom’s happy golden teenagehood. Sometimes you have to bolster a single parent by taking an interest in what they seem to want to go on about.
Iowa fluttered along outside the window. Soybeans lined both sides of the highway. The sky cast a glare on the empty stalks of husked and harvested corn. Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family had rolled through the same prairie in a covered wagon once upon a time, long ago. Laura’s pa described the beauty of their future home and put stars in Laura’s eyes, hope in her heart. The view was picture-book pretty, if you didn’t stop to consider the small white signs that advertised bioengineered seeds and pesticides dotting every field.
“Just a few months?” I asked.
“Maybe a little longer,” my mother answered.
More barns, fields, machine sheds glided past. We stopped at a rest area for lunch and talked about Nana’s rules. Glassware shouldn’t be left in the sink. I needed to separate my underwear from my jeans on laundry day instead of letting them tangle together, hoping the agitator would do the job.
Mom and I took our wrappers and plastic forks with us so that they wouldn’t end in a landfill or rolling along the shoulder like tumbleweeds. By twelve thirty,
we turned north on County Road 14, and the billboards that advertised casinos, banks, and fast-food restaurants were replaced by ones depicting babies wearing sunglasses or lying on mats with pink bunnies. The text above a smiling toddler read, “Before you were born, I knew you.” We passed another sign, standing like a soldier in an empty field, that read, “God is pro-life, are you?”
A little farther on, a man with a chain that ran from his wallet to the front belt loop of his pants lumbered toward his mailbox.
“Do you know him?” I asked.
“That’s just how they do things in the country,” she reminded me.
“Am I the reason we left Des Moines?” I needed to know.
Mom flicked her hair and watched the road ahead.
“Not at all, baby.” She shifted her grip on the steering wheel.
I had been in detention for a week for asking my math teacher about the multiplifornication tables.
We passed another billboard, depicting a woman
holding a telephone in her hand. Underneath, the words warned my mother to be careful. “It’s ten o’clock, do you know where your children are?”
The billboards in Tama County seemed so holy and crusading. If the region wanted to reduce social problems, it might consider a switch to online pop-up or banner ads on the internet. People need flash and bling to change their hearts. I’d thought as much about Al Gore when I’d seen him rambling about melting polar ice caps and inconvenient truths.
“Sexy it up, Al Gore.” I tried to send him an extra-sensory signal. “There are people waiting on you here.”