An Iowa Story


I call this an Iowa story because it happened there, and I still consider Iowa the greatest place in the world. My sister Margaret and I lived on a farm, about a mile and a half from Clifton, with our grandparents. Clifton is about thirty miles from Cedar City, which calls itself a city but it sure is nothing like New York City.


When I was twelve my grandmother took my sister and me aside and told us we were old enough to understand the family history, and we were also old enough to understand that our family history was nobody else’s business, that secrets are magic glue that holds families together, so I was a little afraid the news was not going to be good.  That was when I found out that Margaret and I have different fathers. One was an artist. That would be Margaret’s father. The other was a philosopher—my father.


“They are both wonderful people,” Gramma said, “but it just didn’t work out for your mother.”


When we lived in New York, my mother had told us she was raising both of us alone. We were her loves and her treasures, she said, and we would have a wonderful life together, just the three of us. So I already knew my father was out of the picture. Then, one day, my mother took Margaret and me to Iowa to the farm where she grew up and left us with her parents.


Margaret and I liked Iowa a lot better than New York. We loved living with Gramma and Grandpa. Grandpa taught me things to do around the farm, jobs that I could learn and do, but he never insisted. “There’s no rush, lad,” he’d say. “It’ll all get done in good time.” That’s what they call boys in Iowa: lads. Gramma would read to me and was teaching me to play the piano. I had friends at school. Living with our mother in New York had been exciting but a lot of times it seemed like she was someplace else in her head.


One sunny Friday in October, Margaret and I were down by the creek just lying in the sun. It was an unseasonably warm day. We lay on the grass looking up at the clouds which were moving slowly—puffy cumulus clouds, August clouds in October, what Grandpa called Indian Summer. Indian Summer is the time in Iowa when you can lie in the sun on a hot day and not be bothered by mosquitoes. Grandpa likes this time because the harvest is in and he has time to actually sit.


“Last night,” said Margaret, “I met Billy behind the barn. He tried to kiss me. Next time I am going to do it.” I had absolutely no interest in talking about kissing. That’s what Margaret thought about all the time. She had changed a lot since she got to be sixteen. She used to be skinny. Even some of the boys in my class talked about her.


“Do you have any girls you think about, Jimmy?”


“No, what I’ve been wondering about is my father.”


“What about him?”


“Well, all we know is yours is an artist and mine’s a philosopher. Gramma told us that. But what’s his name? Where is he? I’d like to know.”


“Don’t you pay any attention at all?” said Margaret. “They’ve said more than that. My father is French. Now he lives in Paris. Mom promised me when I am 21, we’ll go together and see him.”


“I know all that, dummy. Your father is an artist, who was then in Cedar City, that Gramma hired to paint Mother’s portrait when she was fifteen. But she never said where mine is. What do philosophers do anyway?”


“Most of them teach college, I think. And his name is Spencer. Professor Spencer. That’s what Mother told me. You were born here on the farm when Mother was in college.”


“I was born here?”


“Yes, and then when you were two and I was seven we moved to New York so Mother could transfer to Julliard. We had a nanny.” Of course, I remembered her. Marika. She was from a city called Prague and called my sister Maggie and me James.


“Billy and I are going there Saturday to see the football game at the college.”


We heard a whistle. Margaret jumped up and ran in her bare feet through the grass to the barn. It was Billy’s whistle and I knew Margaret would be kissed behind the barn.


I stayed, lying in the grass watching the clouds. Margaret was sixteen. When Margaret was born, Mother was also sixteen, in high school, only four years older than me. If I was born here on the farm and my father was a philosophy professor, what did that mean? What was philosophy? Where was this college Mother went to? Is that where this football game was going to be?


I found Grandpa standing by the fence, leaning on it, looking at the cornfield. All the corn had been picked. The stalks which a month before had been green and soft were now brown and crinkly. I leaned on the fence next to him. He was chewing a blade of sweetgrass. I picked one from next to the fence post where the uncut grass is over a foot tall so I could chew with him. I came up to his shoulder and I could just barely reach to put my foot on the bottom rail like he did. “Grandpa,” I said, “Is it true I was born here on the farm?”




“What’s my father’s name? The philosopher. What’s his first name?”


Grandpa looked up in the sky for the answer and then stroked his chin and said, “Don’t rightly know, lad. Let’s say we go see how Gramma’s doing with dinner. Where’s your sister?”


I looked in the sky for the answer and said, “Don’t rightly know, Grandpa.”


He put his arm around my shoulder and we walked back to the farm house for five o’clock dinner.


*  *  *



That night, after Gramma and Grandpa were in bed, I sneaked into Margaret’s bedroom. “You have to take me to that football game tomorrow,” I said.


“No way,” she said.


“I’ll tell Gramma I saw you kissing Billy.”


“You did not see anything.”


“You and Billy can go hide somewhere. I’ll watch the game and know what happens. I need to try to find my father.”


“You’re crazy.”


*  *  *



“Margaret, I don’t think taking Jimmy sounds like a good idea to me,” said Gramma at breakfast.


“Please Gramma,” said Margaret. “He just wants to see the game. You never let us do anything. You won’t let me see Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show tomorrow night, like every other girl in America will be doing. Please, please, please. I promise I’ll watch him every minute.’”


Grandpa reached out and messed up my hair, “I think it’s a grand idea,” he said, and that settled it.


The bus was once a day, except Sunday, from the Clifton General Store to Cedar City. It cost three dollars and took a couple hours because it had to stop at Big Forks and Indian Mound, and anywhere in between if somebody came out to the highway and waved it down, or if anybody pulled the cord the bus would let them off anywhere also.


Billy and Margaret chipped in to buy my ticket.  When we got to Crampton College and found the football field, the game had already started. Margaret said to me, “Now, get lost and meet us right here right after the game.”


I figured my father would be on the Crampton side of the field. There were a lot of people there, more people than lived in Clifton, Big Forks and Indian Mound put together.  Anyway, I asked some college kid with a Crampton sweatshirt on if he knew Professor Spencer and the kid said, ask that woman over there, so I did.


She looked around the crowd and then said, “See up there,” and she pointed into the stands. “See that guy with the umbrella?” There, in the top row, was the only person I saw that day with a tie on. He also had an umbrella which is a funny thing to carry on a sunny day. I went up and sat next to him. There were people around him but no one was sitting close to him.


I just sat there. We watched a band march up and down the field. Then the second half of the game started. We watched a few plays and saw Crampton score a touchdown. Everyone in the crowd jumped up and cheered except Professor Spencer and me. After it calmed down, he turned to me and smiled.


“Hi,” I said. “Are you Professor Spencer?”


“Yes, sir.” he said.

“I’m Jimmy.”


“It’s nice to meet you, Jimmy.” He shook my hand.


Then in the fourth quarter, after there had been a couple more touchdowns and a fumble, he said, “You don’t seem like much of a fan Jimmy. You’re pretty quiet.”


“So are you,” I said.


“Are you here alone, Jimmy?”


“Sort of.”


“Where are your parents?”


Mother was touring Europe with the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra. She sent us a postcard once in a while. “Well, my mother is somewhere, I think. Maybe somewhere in Italy. I’m not sure.”


“And your father, is he here at the game?”


“I think so.”


“What do you mean, you think so? What’s your last name, Jimmy?”


“Monday,” I said. “James Monday is my name.” He looked at me funny-like, tilting his head and squinting his eyes. “My mother’s name is Gloria Monday.”


Then he looked at me very carefully, like looking at me was going to help him make a decision “Where do you live, Jimmy?”


“Out near Clifton.”


“On the Monday farm?”


I nodded.


After the game we walked together, stepping down through the stands, and then he stopped and stared. He was looking at Margaret. “That’s my sister,” I said, “and her boyfriend.”


“Oh,” he said, and put his hand on his chest and kept staring. “I should have known.”


The professor walked with us to the bus station. He even waited for the bus with us. He  waved to me as the bus drove away.


*  *  *



When Margaret and I got home Gramma and Grandpa didn’t say much of anything. We had to eat real late. At the dinner table it was pretty quiet, which was unusual. Usually, Margaret and I told Gramma and Grandpa everything we had thought and done during the day. Finally, Gramma served us each a slice of fresh apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it, which, in Iowa, is as fancy as it gets. She served mine last and it was the biggest. Then she sat back at her place at the head of the table and said, “Your father called to tell me that he had met you. You know Jimmy, I have been hoping this would happen someday, but your mother made us promise we wouldn’t tell you where he was. I didn’t think it would happen this soon, but you figured it out for yourself. I don’t care to know how.” That was all she said to me. Then she turned to Margaret, and said, “So, Margaret, where in hades were you when all this was happening at the football game ? ” and Margaret got all flustered and funny.


Then Grandpa said, “All I got to say is that your Gramma told Jimmy’s father he is welcome here anytime and Jimmy can go to Cedar City to see his father whenever he wants, but he’s got to call him before he goes. And, also startin’ right now, I’ll be keepin’ an eye on you too, young lady. Yessiree.” Margaret and I looked at each other.


*  *  *



That night, as soon as my grandparents’ door was closed and their lights went out, Margaret came into my room, sat on the edge of my bed, and whispered,  “Aren’t you gonna ask me if I did it?”


“Did what?” I said, half asleep.


“Kissed him.”


“Well, did you?”




“I knew that. I didn’t have to ask,” I said. “I saw your silly face when Granma asked where you had been during the game.”


“Okay. Well, aren’t you gonna ask me how it was?”


“How was it?”


“It was pretty good. We’re gonna try again tomorrow.”


She went back to her bedroom. Something had changed in Margaret. She had grown more. She was now a lot older than me, doing things I didn’t know anything about and feeling things I didn’t understand.


The next week, when I went back to school, I realized that I had changed too. I could feel it when I talked to my friends and in class listening to the teachers. I could feel it not just in my mind but in my body or somewhere in myself. The world had changed. Something was over and something was starting. Now Margaret had a life of her own, separate from Gramma and Grandpa and even from me. And I had a life of my own too. I felt older. I walked down the halls of the school thinking I would kiss a girl someday, probably one of the skinny girls I already knew, when I figured out how to go about it and why. There was no rush. All in good time.


I wondered which one it would be.


And, even though I hadn’t found out what his first name was, I had got to meet my father. He seemed nice, but maybe a little uptight.





Peter Obourn’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in Blue Lake Review, Bombay Gin, CQ (California Quarterly), Crack the Spine, descant, Door is a Jar Magazine, Evening Street Review, Forge, Gastronomica, Griffin, Hawaii Pacific Review, Inkwell, Kestrel, The Legendary, Limestone, The Madison Review, New Orleans Review, North Atlantic Review, Riddle Fence, The Round, Saint Ann’s Review, SNReview, Spillway, Stickman Review, Switchback, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Verdad, Viral Cat, Voices de la Luna, Wild Violet, The Write Room, and The Blueline Anthology 2004. His short story “Morgan the Plumber,” which appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.