Green Hills Literary Lantern

You Will Live in a Country House

 

 

 

 

 

After college you will get a job at a small newspaper in rural Iowa and get engaged to the girl you've dated for the last two years. You want to do things, big things, but then your lady sees this house. It looks just like the house where you grew up in the small town on the other side of the state, the typical boxy white farmhouse with a mud room right off the kitchen and screen doors and storm windows that look out on the cornfields, a sea of green meeting the blue of the sky. A smile will play at your lady’s lips as she throws open the kitchen window that faces the fields. This will let you hear the soft breeze ruffle the leaves of the cornstalks. The sunlight will be so bright that you will have to squint your eyes when you look over at her figure. A swallow that made its mud-nest just outside the window will let out a sudden trill, warning you to not come too close to its newly-hatched chicks.

Your lady spent many happy hours at your parents’ house over college breaks, chatting to your mother in the kitchen and performing the acts of domestic affection that made her so endearing. A lovely girl, your mother said. Her parents never took the time to teach her much about life.

Your lady will see this house that’s two miles outside of the town where you will work, and she falls in love with it. So you will buy it and this means at least another five years in the area, since you don’t want to lose on the investment. And then at the end of five years you still won’t move on because by then the markets will be doing strange things and it's not wise. Besides, your lady's belly will be growing larger by the day, and she will feel a need to nest.

Then eight years total will have passed in the house. A vegetable garden will spring up in the backyard, with tomatoes and pumpkins and a little bit of corn of your own. The side yard will sport a sprawling strawberry patch, and flowers will surround the perimeter of the house like a moat. A barefoot toddler will waddle after his mother, his white diaper crinkling with every step. Your lady will scold you whenever you mow because you throw bits of grass into her perennials. You won't respond because by this time you will have grown tired of taking care of such a huge yard. It eats into your weekends. Her belly will once again be growing larger.

You will start to worry because you can't give your offspring much of a future with just the small-town newspaper income, so you will start to apply for jobs in bigger cities. A newspaper in St. Paul will give you a phone interview. It all looks good to go until the paper gets bought out and folded by a bigger press before you even have time to turn in your resignation. But it will work out because the owners of your small paper will go into retirement at the same time, giving you the helm. There will be a sizable pay increase and talk of selling you the paper in a few years. Your lady will see this as fate and fortune working in your favor. You will not be so sure.  

The people of the town will like simple things. The stories you write will be things that they like to read, of local interest. Nothing will challenge you as a writer. Things will be happening around the globe, big things, things that you want to see and write about. Issues regarding the whole human race itself will be at stake, but none of your readers will be concerned about that. You want to meet rural people from exotic lands and tell of their tragedies. Instead, you will write about rural people here and their 4-H Club activities and their Cutest Baby Competition, which your lady will enter your second-born son in. He will get Cutest Smile Award.

But slowly, this town will start to grow on you. It begins when you take your oldest son down to a nearby creek and let him wade. He will jump back and whine a little when he feels how cold the water is, but then he will see how the silt at the bottom looks like peanut butter and he will scoop it up. He will laugh when it slops through his fingers back into the water. You will not be able to keep yourself from laughing as he rubs it into his red hair, and you laugh even harder when you think of what your lady will say when she sees him like this. And then your son will see things in the water, such as minnows and frogs and smooth black stones. He will clap his sandy hands together when you skip a rock for him. That is when you will realize that he would never have these experiences in the city, the experiences that you yourself had as a child. You spent many summers of your youth at your grandparents’ retirement house in Fort Worth, Texas, and you know what it is like to only see turf when it is in a parking lot median or to only find nature in the bridled form of a municipal park.

The feeling of asphyxiation will start to lift as you rediscover the world through the eyes of your two boys. Things that are small for you are the grandest mysteries of the universe for them. They capture a baby swallow that has fallen from its nest while learning to fly. It squawks and struggles in your oldest son's hand, and they exclaim at how the beating wings feel. It is an ordinary event of spring, the test of flight for young chicks, but it is all they speak of for a week, “We caught a bird with our bare hands!”

The people of the town will start to take on layers of complexity as you, the local newsman, learn more about their lives. You know the real reason why the mayor stepped down, and it has nothing to do with the money that went mysteriously missing from the town's bank account and everything to do with the fact that his daughter went away to college and contracted HIV, and suddenly that will take on new meaning because you have children of your own and you know how much your heart would break if one of them were to ever go through that. You will know private things about the citizens, things that usually only doctors know, but you will be very careful with what information you print. You know firsthand how vicious small-town gossip can ruin lives. Shunning, ostracizing, snubbing, banishment—these things should not happen, especially in a community where everyone's in it together. The mayor's secret will stay with you, because in a town like that, HIV smacks of sin unspeakable and parents who have failed to raise their children right.

 

Your role in the community will grow as you take on the additional post of high school track coach. In college, you were a runner, a track star, and you knew how the crowd sounded, the cheers and applause—muffled though it was by your being so focused on achieving victory.  You will feel as though you are accomplishing something as you watch your runners improve and beat schools that had defeated them for years. But this, too, will be mingled with frustrations. You will hope that some of them, at least, will try for a scholarship and make something of themselves in college. Despite all of your encouragement, though, few of your protégés will seriously think about taking their athletics beyond high school. They will not be able to imagine the larger world outside of their hometown. Many of them will make plans to marry their sweethearts and settle down in the area they were raised in. You will tell them that there is so much more to life, so much more beyond this place. They will not listen to you. After all, they will reason, if the outside world is really as great as you say it is, then why is their coach living and working in this town?

And then there will be the gatherings out at your country house, gatherings that grow larger each year. Barbeques in the summer with curling smoke and the smell of propane mixing with red meat and sweet spice, fireworks at the fourth of July, the lights of many sparklers close to the ground darting back and forth, the occasional shriek when a finger is burnt, forts and snowball fights and hot cocoa in the winter, the dining room wall dedicated to incoming Christmas cards and barely able to hold them all. More little mud-nests will appear beneath the eaves by the kitchen, and during long summer evenings you will watch the swallows come and go, flying as if they have appointments they are late for. Your runners will attend these gatherings, along with their parents, and you as you look at these people’s lives, you will wonder why they don't encourage their children to reach for something better than they have. They will praise you for the wonderful things you have done for their offspring, saying you have boosted their confidence, made them more responsible, kept them out of trouble.  You will not respond because you will wonder what kind of a difference you're really making. You will be reminded of the people you grew up with on the other side of the state, only these people will welcome you in instead of trying to make you feel like an outsider, like the people in your hometown did. They will still offer no more interesting conversation topics than the people you knew in your childhood, because they will not be interested in the life outside of this town.

 

When your youngest son is eight, your lady will find her belly growing unexpectedly. This time, she will have a little baby girl. You will absolutely adore her and spoil her rotten. All your children are precious, but there's something special about the relationship you have with her. When she gazes up at you from beneath her bangs you will give her anything. She will look a lot like your lady, with curly red hair that bounces off her back as she runs barefoot after her brothers in the surrounding hay fields.

 

Your older son will inherit your speed, and even though he doesn't go on to run high school and college track like you, he will play other sports where running is necessary. He will go on to do great things as an athlete and will be credited for taking the high school football team to state. A Division II college will offer him a full-ride scholarship, and he will continue to shine. Articles will be written about him and microphones will be shoved under his mouth while he is covered in sweat and gleaming in victory.

This will make your younger son very grumpy. He will feel as though he is choking on his brother's dust and harbor resentment over his apparent invisibility. He will not be a bad athlete himself, but he gives up when he can't live up to the precedent set by his brother. His coaches will expect too much. And then things will only get worse for him, because in a town like that, how else can you prove your manhood except through sports? He will have dark hair and wear dark clothes to match it. He will spend too much time moping in his room and you will worry. But then it will turn out that he has inherited your talent for writing. He will win a fiction contest in high school and during college he will write short stories about stifling small towns and sibling rivalry and the unfair advantages society gives the athletic. One of these will be published in a prominent literary magazine, and when he graduates he will get into an MFA program. Before he even completes the program his first novel will hit the presses. And once he’s published a novel, he will think that he’s finally surpassed his brother, and he will cheer up. This will make his writing suffer, since he drew from personal drama. You will suspect that he creates problems for himself in romantic relationships because he's run out of material and isn't mature enough to know how to inspire himself with experiences outside the limits of his own egotistical little world.

You will try to tell him this, gently, but he will disregard your advice because he secretly thinks you are a failure for getting stuck in a small town. This will sting, because you ultimately stayed so that your family wouldn't have to be pulled up by the roots. There were opportunities throughout the years that you turned down so that your children wouldn't have to change school and miss their friends. 

Your older son the athlete won't the think you're a failure. He will come home whenever he can, telling you about exciting developments in his athletic career. It will not be long before he is drafted as a running back into the Arena Football League, but he will suffer a major injury during his third season, and that will end his life as a professional player. But he never loses hope. He will continue to find work in athletics, first as a coordinator for a private college in one of the larger cities in Iowa, then as an assistant coach for a state school. He will never lose his admiration for you, his father, who gave up so much to make sure they had a wonderful life. You will like that you are appreciated, but once your sons move on you will wonder what is left for you. They will live the lives you once dreamed of.

  

Your daughter will be absolutely gorgeous when she reaches her teenage years. She will look more like your lady than ever. This will make you nervous when the boys start to call. After all, you know what you were like when you were at that age, and you know exactly what went through your head when you first laid eyes on your lady. You will keep a manure fork by the front door, and you will stand next to it whenever a date arrives. Most of these shifty creatures will not meet your penetrating gaze.

 

Your daughter will glide through high school like a queen, believing she is one because of how you treated her. Kids in their rusting farm trucks and beat-up sedans will come roaring up the gravel driveway, seeking her company. She has plans every night of the week, whether it is a club activity or a social event. You and your lady will have to keep on her about her homework. You secretly worry that she will not want to go to college and leave her friends behind, or that she will fall in love with a local boy or worse, that she will get pregnant and the local boy will sneak off. You will worry that maybe she regards you and your talk of the outside world in the same way your runners do. Or maybe, you will worry, you spoiled her too much and now she doesn't want to give up a good thing.

 

You will tell your lady about all your fears as you drift off into the night, her head lying on your chest the way it has since you were first together. She will tell you that you that it's only natural for children to move on, and that you have a part in this community. She will say that people depend on you, that you have given them a lot. You will think that is way too sentimental of a platitude, but you will not tell her this. Instead, you will ask what the town has given you. She will tell you a home.

 

            What sort of a home, you will question several nights later, when you stand in the brightly lit kitchen, the blinds to the window open and showing an outside so dark that it looks like there is nothing beyond these four walls. Your daughter will be at the table crying, and your lady will have her arms around her in an attempt to comfort. There will be blood, but you won't be sure where it's coming from because her face and hands will be red from emotion and she will keep saying over and over, “We were drunk, Daddy, I'm suh-suh suhrry, so sorry, so sorry. A-And the barn, it was ruh-red, and-and they wuh-re there, they were there. Puhlease don't call the police, daddy. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I’m so, so sorry.”

 And you'll know that this is one thing you can't grant to her, but you will not know how to respond, so you will pace the floor. She will try to get up to go to you, but she will start to sway as she stands, so your lady will firmly place her back into the chair, and your daughter will start to talk again, “I didn’t know about the b-bricks on the fuh-floor, a-and the cups. I just didn’t—I’m so sorry, so sorry. Please, puhlease don’t call the police, d-daddy, please. I’m so, so, so sorry. ”

You will feel as though you could pace there all evening, but then your lady will look up at you and say, “We've got to get her to a hospital.”

Your lady will climb into the back of the cab with your still-sobbing daughter and throw a blanket over her shoulders. She will hold your daughter upright and hold a pan in her lap for when the vomit comes. You will grip the steering wheel of your truck and the three of you will lurch into the night. The window will be rolled down, because the air inside will feel too stale and oppressive. You will catch a glimpse of yourself in the glass as it slides down, and you suddenly realize that it will be much harder to escape this town now that you've reached this age. But escape you must, and you will hate yourself for not doing that earlier. You will feel as though you sacrificed your daughter for your sons, giving them an idyllic childhood while exposing her to the dangers of small-town teenagehood, where drugs and booze are rampant in the absence of other things to do.

The grit from the gravel road will swirl up in a cloud around you, filling the cab until you have to roll the widow back up.

“D-Daddy? I'm suh-sorry. We, we, we wuh-re drunk,”she will say from the back seat

“I know, baby. We'll take care of you,” you will say.

“I muhssed up.”

You will look at her through the rear-view mirror, gazing at your two reflections side-by-side. “I'll do what I can.”

 

 

Laura Reeder grew up on both the beaches of Florida and in a boxy white farm house in eastern Iowa.  She graduated with her MA in English with an emphasis in creative writing from the University of Northern Iowa. Currently, she is an editor at a newspaper in a small town in rural Iowa. This is her first fiction publication.