Winner of the J.F. Powers Short fiction contest
The siren that announces the all clear sounds just as desperate as the one that sent us into hiding. The nurse gives Merrill Ann an orange bottle of pain killers and then we all pile back in the car and drive, by silent agreement, west of town to the farm.
If it wasn’t for the houses missing pieces of siding and the tree limbs scattered like toothpicks, the whole thing would feel impossible. The clouds have gone from green back to gray and are already beginning to break up in places, though the rain is still falling.
Driving up the lane, we can already see exactly what we don’t want to see: the house is gone.
“So, you know that rock your mother uses for a doorstop?”
This is what my father says to me. The car idles by the curb of the arrivals terminal as I put my carry-on in the back seat. Never mind the reason I have flown in for Easter, a holiday I haven’t been home for in years. I, of course, am my father’s daughter, so I expect him to mention anything other than the real issue. Still, the rock seems random, even for him.
But I play along. “Yeah, I remember it,” I say. Never mind that last week I listened to him actually almost cry over the telephone. Actually almost cry. She’s really glad you’re coming this year.
Now one $389 plane ticket later, and I am again taking in the corn-and-cow panorama.
Well, there’s something interesting about it.”
“Its shape, for instance. It’s a strange-looking rock.”
A pause as Omaha’s meager metropolis melts to fields and fences.
“Guess we might get some weather tomorrow,” he says next. I lean forward to look at the sky beyond the windshield. Sunlight fills the majority of the late-afternoon blue, some innocent white clouds pushed back into the distance like a hat off a hot forehead. But good weather now is no guarantee of good weather later, especially in Nebraska.
“How’s living in town?” I finally ask.
“Your mother’s enjoying herself. Keeps spying on all the neighbors. Never been able to do that before.” Because town is where you live after you’ve become old and prosperous, two years ago my parents packed up the old davenport and great-grandma’s china and bought a ranch-style house on 2nd Street.
“Yeah,” I laugh. Not a big laugh, just a chuckle, to let him know I am picturing my mother’s short roundness in a kitchen chair, pulled up to the window with her nose poked through a crack in the curtains. A chuckle to say, I understand, Dad, and never mind that my sister is dying.
They probably feel guilty now for leaving her out there in the farmhouse by herself. But she is the one who said she couldn’t bear to let them sell the place; she’s the one that’s always been sentimental about it. And her workshop is in the barn, with all her squares and chisels and the massive table-mounted saw, along with her inspiration, she always says. Even now I can hear her voice in my head, and I am tempted to roll my eyes. She is the one who insisted that she wouldn’t mind living out there all alone. She is the one who fourteen months ago fell down the stairs, got a bruise on her side that wouldn’t heal, and found out her liver was full of cancer.
I’ve talked to her on the phone a few times since then, and as far as I can tell, not even the cancer can shake her out of her little routine. I remember asking her, the one time we actually talked about it, right after the diagnosis, what she was going to do now. I don’t know what kind of answer I expected—China, maybe, or sky diving. I could picture her, sitting at the old kitchen table, picking at the chipped Formica finish like we’d done since we were kids. She said she was going into town to have dinner with Mom and Dad—so I dropped the subject.
By the time 94 becomes the Main Street of Pender, approximate population 1,200, the sun is setting, the clouds along the horizon now glazed candy pink. Shadow-shrouded buildings huddle under the impossibly big sky. There are only about ten or so businesses on Main, and several of them still have those old fashioned facades that make them look like two-stories. The windows of the store fronts and the few cars parked in front of them reflect the evening street back upon itself, giving the whole town a closed up feeling that makes me claustrophobic. Even in a place with so much sky, I feel pushed down, like a bean planted too deep to grow. Or perhaps because of the sky.
I might feel more disposed to affection for the place, I suppose, if I hadn’t lived here so long. In high school, my best friend Stephen and I spent a lot of Saturdays sitting on my living room floor studying glossy brochures for Harvard and UCLA, ignoring my mother’s sidelong looks and under-her-breath clucks at ungrateful children who wouldn’t even consider the possibility of Nebraska’s own fine university. In the end, Stephen went east, and I went north, which further disproved my mother’s theory that we would just marry each other and settle in Wayne, or maybe Lincoln, if we were really adventurous.
The University of Chicago seemed the antithesis of my home town, but it only took about three weeks for me to realize it wasn’t going to be my salvation, which was about three weeks too late to take back years of walking around smugly, like I had my escape plan folded up in my back pocket.
My father slowly rolls the car through town, and the blinker tick-tacks us onto 2nd and then into the driveway, hung over by an old box elder tree.
“Place looks good,” I say. “The siding guys did a good job.”
“Hello, Helen,” my father calls as we step out of the evening sun and into the living room, dimmed by shades drawn perpetually to save the upholstery. My mother comes in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on the dish towel hung over one shoulder.
“Joni,” she says as she hugs me. But she says it with the smallest catch in her voice, a kind of stiffness you might have missed if you hadn’t grown up with the woman.
“Did you have a safe flight? Did your father speed?” She turns away from me quickly to shoot a look after my suitcase disappearing into the back bedroom. “Sit down—you’re tired. Can I get you something to eat?”
I shake my head. When my mother mentions food it’s usually because she’s not mentioning something else. Just now, I’m wondering whether what she doesn’t want to talk about is Merrill Ann or the fact that I didn’t come home last Christmas.
“Where’s Merrill?” I ask, sitting on the dated flower-print couch that still has lots of wear left.
“She came in to eat with me, but now she’s gone back out to the farm. She’s been working on something out there non-stop lately, and I can hardly get her to come in at all. Did you eat on the way?” She smiles brightly and picks at the pills on her navy sweatshirt.
Dad comes back and stands over us, shifting his gaze from her to me and back again. I can feel him pushing me on to smooth over my long absence, which is the least I can do, considering Merrill Ann and everything. But I don’t have anything to say, and all I do is look at the carpet, feeling my mother’s false cheerfulness and my father’s expectations hanging between us all, sort of like a soft, smothery blanket.
“I’ll call her,” my father finally says.
“Wait, Dad,” I stand up again. In and out in five minutes, I think with ashamed relief. Some kind of record. “I’ll just drive out and see her. If you don’t mind my taking the car.”
“Sure. And when you come back, remind me to show you that rock, all right?”
“Bruce.” My mother sighs.
He winks at me as he digs the keys out of his pocket and tosses them over.
The pavement turns to gravel just outside town, and the tires rumble another layer of dust off the road and onto the car. By the time I turn onto the long dirt lane that leads up to the farmhouse, darkness has descended. The headlights splash over fields on either side, freshly harrowed by both my father and my sister, who has been eagerly taking shifts on all the farm equipment since she was twelve years old, while I spent my teenage years hiding in the relative coolness of an un-air-conditioned bedroom with all the shades pulled.
We both grew up reading—intelligent recreational options being limited in the middle of nowhere. But she always managed to find time to do things in between the novels. I never really understood how, or why. After I left, I could never decide what had bothered me more, that she was accomplishing things while I just sat there, or that she was always content with doing such small things—walking the bean field for weeds, shaping a new end table for our parents.
The day I left for college, she was up in the combine, bringing in the oats. I remember standing in the yard in front of the machine shed, watching her jump down off the green metal ladder, most of her hair no longer in its ponytail and sweat on her nose, which somehow managed to get sunburned despite the almost constant outdoor presence of a billed feed cap. She gave me a loose hug and drank a glass of lemonade my mother had brought out to her. I was eighteen and she was twenty-two and had been back on the farm for a year and a half since she’d completed her associate’s at Wayne State.
She finished the lemonade, and we stood there awkwardly for a bit, until my mother finally took the empty glass and said to me your father’s waiting. Then Merrill Ann turned and climbed back up into the combine. My father was standing by the driver’s side of the station wagon, my suitcases already piled in the back seat. He had his hand shading his eyes as he looked down over the field Merrill Ann was currently harvesting, driving back and forth in perfectly straight rows at about seven miles an hour.
“She’ll have that whole west side done by tomorrow,” he said as we climbed in and he started up the engine. There was a small note of admiration, which I knew as the Merrill Ann Factor. I listened to the gravel crack and bang against the station wagon’s undercarriage, and thought how wonderful it would be to not hear that sound for a very long time.
Tonight, light spills from the front windows behind the covered porch, turning the white paint of the dormered farmhouse ghostly. Up the porch steps and past the redwood porch swing (she’d had the wood shipped in from northern California, which seemed a great feat to both my parents), I knock and then notice the lights are on in the barn as well.
Picking my way across the dark, uneven yard, I try to plan out what I will say when I finally see her. The yard light’s motion sensors catch me halfway, and the sudden flood startles me. When I reach the barn, I do not knock, only shove open one of the heavy doors and go in.
There hasn’t been a reason to have hay on the farm since my parents quit feeding out steers, and so Merrill Ann long ago turned the barn into her own personal wood shop. Hand and power tools line the walls, placed neatly and carefully in some order that only she understands, and which still includes the 16-ounce claw hammer I proudly gave her for her fourteenth birthday, the first tool she ever owned for herself. My sister is bent over a still-rough chair, its blond wood soaking in the careful attentions of its crafter and her small block plane.
She is humming to herself and doesn’t hear me come in, absorbed in the rhythm of her own movement. I stand at the door for a moment. Take a deep breath.
“Hi,” I say.
She looks up quickly, then wipes at her forehead, replacing sweat with sawdust. I don’t know what I prepared myself for, but it isn’t this. She doesn’t look sick at all; she looks exactly the same.
Her thin lips part in a wide smile. With the plane still in her hand, she comes over and hugs me awkwardly, making me feel like I am still a teenager. She always makes me feel like that, sophisticated and insecure all at once. I know instantly that our conversation tonight will consist of just so many attempts that dead end in awkward silences, like trying to find your way out of one of those housing developments with all the cul-de-sacs.
“How are you?” she asks, going back to the chair and starting up again with the plane. “How’s the big city—all ‘panic and emptiness’?” She quirks a smile at me.
“Who’s that, Steinbeck?”
How are you? is what I should say. What is the doctor saying? Is there anything I can do? Now that I’m here looking at her, I find that I care much more about these questions than about anything else. In fact, I realize I love her so much that I can’t ask a single one of them. Nebraskans.
Instead: “That for the ‘rents?”
“Yep,” brushing at the wood of the chair with capable fingers. “Table and chairs.”
“Didn’t you already make them a set?”
She smiles down at the chair under her plane as if they share some clever secret.
“Yes, but the silly martyrs insisted it stay out here where it’s always been, so I have to make them another.”
We’re quiet for a moment, and, afraid she will somehow bring up the cancer before I am ready, I blunder out a question.
“How long do you think it’ll take you?” I realize too late the importance of staying away from the topic of time.
“I’m not sure.” Her arms stop in mid thrust. “As long as it takes, I guess.”
“Hey, Stephen was back for a visit last month.” She tries again. “I saw him down at the Triple Nickel with his parents and fiancée. He said to say hi. You know he’s being transferred to Europe soon, right?”
“Paris,” I say, and the smile we exchange has genuine warmth.
“When good Americans die they go to Paris.” We say it in almost perfect unison.
Then we hear what we’ve just said.
As we get out of the car, careful on the upturned earth that marks out where the tornado has walked, I feel just like I’m on a movie set. The timber and concrete foundation poking out of the ground like a host of broken limbs, this can’t be real. It can’t be because that’s all there is—no roof collapsed in on itself, no shattered glass or strewn siding—the whole house has simply been stolen. Later it will be found, dumped in large pieces several miles away in the middle of someone’s cow pasture, clothes still folded in a few of Merrill Ann’s dresser drawers. But for the moment, the raptured house leaves me with an empty feeling.
“Dear Lord, have mercy,” my mother says, though it seems a little late for that request. Across the yard, the barn sits serenely untouched, not even a chip in its paint. Without a word, Merrill Ann goes toward it and disappears inside.
No one says anything else, because there’s nothing else to say. We stand, silent in the drizzle, until my parents wander over the hill to assess the damage to the corn crib and hog shed.
I am still standing in the same place, where the front porch was, when Merrill Ann returns with one of her chairs. She lets the legs sink into the mud and sits facing back down the lane toward the battered corn field and gravel road.
“I stand in the sunny noon of life,” she says, taking the bottle of pills out of her jacket pocket and peering through the dark orange plastic at the over-sized capsules.
She laughs once, then turns and, as hard as she can, chucks the pills at what is left of the house. She looks at me, and then back out down the hill, and for just a moment her face crumples.
Before I can say anything, she has swept out the corners of her eyes with her fingers and then closes them and tilts her head back against the chair into the rain.
Easter noon drowns us in a downpour. Severe weather warnings flee across the margin of the muted television.
“It doesn’t look too bad yet, but you never know,” my father says, holding back the living room curtains and studying the sky. A multitude of smells and sounds issue from the kitchen where my mother is orchestrating the preparation of eight or so dishes at once. A dash of red appears over Dad’s shoulder as my sister’s pickup pulls into the drive. She comes through the side door directly into the kitchen, and I hear her ask my mom how she can help. By the time I get there, she is already mashing potatoes with enthusiasm. I feel guilty and use a fork to poke at the lettuce salad nearest me on the counter. The guilt makes me just as annoyed with Merrill Ann now as I was this morning in church, when she sang “Crown Him the Lord of Life” without a trace of irony.
“Want me to toss this for you?” I ask.
“Oh no, sweetie,” my mother replies, head immersed in the oven as she inspects the ham. “You go on back and sit down. We’ll be eating soon.”
I return to the living room and my father, feeling like an outcast, knowing that through years of ignoring what went on in kitchens everywhere I have brought the feeling on myself.
“Hey, you didn’t remind me,” he says cryptically as I sit down on the couch. He leaves and I pick up the television remote, but he is back before I can flip the channel. He has his rock.
I need both hands to get it safely into my lap. I recognize the great lump as having been my mother’s doorstop for a number of years. Merrill Ann and I, too, employed it countless times, its weight capable of suspending any unlikely coordination of blanket fort quilts. But it looks like a regular gray rock to me, roughly triangular in shape, smoothed by rain and wind and, more recently, human touch.
“Well?” he asks.
“All right,” I say, resigned.
He sits down next to me to get into good explaining position. He has to wait for an exceptionally loud peal of thunder to pass before he can begin.
“Well, you know where it came from, don’t you?”
“When we were putting the new porch on, after those straight-line winds took the old one. The Obermeier boys were helping us dig the foundation, remember?”
“I was six, Dad.”
“Well, they found this when they were digging, so your mother decided it would be a good doorstop. But really, there’s something that’s got me about it.”
Carefully I bend over and lower the thing to the carpeting.
“I think it’s a rock, Dad.” But I am really thinking about whether I ought to talk to him about Merrill Ann’s illness now, while she and Mom are both in the kitchen. So I am lost in thought, and for a moment I think the sudden crash is more of the storm when it is really Merrill Ann dropping the five-cup salad, shattering mom’s crystal party bowl. Then, in my frantic leap out of my seat, I trip on Dad’s rock, which means I am the last one to the kitchen and too late to help my sister up off the linoleum.
We are at the hospital in five minutes, despite the torrential rain. There’s a small one in Pender, and there is a doctor there who’s been keeping track of Merrill Ann in between her visits to Sioux City. Mom, Dad, and I sit in the waiting room while the nurse on Easter duty takes a look at her and calls her doctor in from his family meal. My father paces to the window and looks out. The lightning and thunder have become more frequent as the storm’s center approaches, the sky now an unhealthy green. My mother is next to me, unnaturally stiff, eyes on the flashes filling in the window around my father’s frame. She still hasn’t met my eyes, not even in the car’s backseat where she was desperate for something to look at besides my sister.
The doctor’s decent enough to put a white coat over his Sunday suit. He isn’t overly concerned, and he taps a ballpoint pen against his left leg as he tells us that the pain is normal and to be expected, that he’s explained everything to Merrill Ann and given her a prescription.
“She’ll be out in just a minute,” he says.
The thunder breaks directly above our heads just then, making me jump, and the lights flicker once. The doctor looks past us out the window.
“Feel free to stay until it clears up a little, though.”
I finally take a good look outside. The wind is up, whipping tree branches and the flags on the hospital’s poles with a violence that always scared me as a child. The rain is coming down so hard that it is bouncing six inches back off the pavement, and I realize that some of it is hail.
“Hey,” Merrill Ann says, coming into the room, combing back short, dark hair with her fingers. We all look at her, away from the window, as she looks past us out of it.
“Getting pretty nasty,” she says, just as the pleading wail of the tornado siren reaches us over the angry rattling of hail and rain. At the sound of the siren, we all stand frozen for a long moment. Another tympanic round of thunder shakes us into motion.
“I wonder where they spotted it,” says my father.
The doctor sweeps us toward the door with both arms.
“How about you folks wait in the basement,” he says.
In the basement we sit awkwardly on overturned buckets outside a maintenance room, just our family. The holiday hospital staff either has no fear of foul weather or has a better stocked place to wait it out.
“Quite the storm,” my father says to no one.
“I’m so sorry about the party bowl, Mom,” Merrill Ann says, a few silent moments later.
“Oh, no, sweetie,” my mom says. “It wasn’t your fault. I shouldn’t have been letting you help in the first place. I’m the one who should be sorry.”
In the further awkward silence that follows, she looks at me. And I mean, she looks at me. She apparently intends to make up for lost time, and her gaze is intense enough to brand cattle.
I clear my throat. I can think of nothing to say. Does she want me to apologize too? For what? Perhaps she thinks I should have been the one holding the crystal, the one helping in the kitchen, letting my sister lounge on the couch with the clicker in her hand. At this thought I get angry back and only return her stare. Doesn’t she remember that she was the one that banished me from the kitchen, from the sacred company of Merrill Ann?
Finally though, her stare wins out.
“I’ll clean it up when we get home,” I say. “Merrill Ann, you should lie down for a bit.”
The sound in my mother’s throat is one I’ve never heard from her before.
“What?” I say. My father goes to open his mouth, thinks better and shuts it again. I know I’ve won now, at least for the moment, because my mother will never be able to say out loud all the hurt she is storing up inside.
“There could be a transplant,” I say, feeling stupid for not keeping my mouth shut. “Or . . . something.” Cold comfort. What good is a sister who can’t even sympathize with your terminal cancer?
“Nine bean rows will I have there,” she says into the drops that fall against her lips. This is one I recognize, but cannot place. Instead I think that sitting in the rain can’t be good for her.
“I’m going to see if there’s an umbrella in the trunk,” I say as I turn away.
“I like the rain,” she says, and I stop. “Do you ever think of where the drops have been? How far they have come? Each one formed around a speck of dust, a speck of dust that’s found its way from where? Sri Lanka? Morocco? When it rains it’s like the whole world is with you. Maybe it’s how God feels, all the time.”
There it is. The Merrill Ann Factor. But I’m not annoyed this time. For once, in the rain and the mud beside the empty ground that was my childhood home, I feel her magic, that she has made the rain into more than the rain.
“I’m going to stay,” I say then.
“Joni.” She opens her eyes and looks at me. “Go back. You’ve got work. Besides, in a few months I’m just going to turn yellow and be cranky from all the pain.”
I sit down on the ground next to her, ignoring the mud that squelches under the seat of my jeans. I pick at a stray sliver poking out from one of the chair legs.
We sit until our parents come back, when my mother tearfully announces that she is sure I have ruined my pants and I’ll have to take them off right away when we get home and she’ll see what she can do with them.
“You know, the foundation was going on the north end of the house anyway,” my dad says, attempting his usual sunny-side approach. “At least this way, the insurance will be paying to replace it.”
Merrill Ann gets into the back seat next to me and says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone.”
“Where’s that from, Shakespeare?” I ask.
My mother laughs; the laugh is tight, but it is still a laugh. She swings her head around and looks at me incredulously.
“I did send you to Sunday school,” she says.
Then one day in June my sister turns yellow, just like she predicted. The weight loss and dark eye-circles we have been able to ignore in a concentrated sort of way, but this is different.
We sit at the breakfast table eating sausages and waffles, and no one mentions it. We talk only about the recent rains and the Johnson’s corn probably getting washed out of the bottom. We are sitting at the new dining set my sister and I have recently brought in from the farm, in the end only missing one chair. The sentimental part of my mother insists on using it anyway, while her utilitarian side sees no disparity in making up the last place with an old green-seated folding chair.
Merrill Ann gets up from the table and begins to clear the dishes; she picks the stack up and takes a step, but then a sharp breath makes her put them back down with a ceramic rattle, and she hangs on to the edge of the table with her eyes closed.
The moment seems to take the wind out of all of us, and my parents and I sit frozen as well, not knowing what to do. Finally, I jump up, swinging around the table without looking where I am going. But there is that stupid rock again. Agony shoots up my big toe, and I almost trip right into her. By the time I get my hand to her elbow to steady her, whatever has happened is over and she has caught her breath.
“Don’t bother,” is all she says. “I’m fine.” And she leaves the dishes on the table and walks back to the guest bedroom she’s been using since Easter.
My parents give each other one of their not talking about it looks, and my mother begins to clear the plates herself.
I sit back down on the folding chair, holding my throbbing toe as tightly as I can.
“Guess I’ll go see about mowing the lawn,” my father says as he gets up from the table.
I listen to the clinking of my mother doing the dishes with her back to me, carefully hand washing each plate and glass because the brand new dishwasher is much too good for everyday use. I stare at the rock, and the rock stares back at me. By this point, I can almost imagine that it positioned itself in my way maliciously. I think about the color of my sister’s skin and the look on her face as she put the plates back down, the way no knew what to do or what to say, and I hate that rock even more. What right does a rock have to take up more conversation time than my dying sister?
I let go of my foot and reach over with both hands, getting a good grip on either side before hoisting it up into my arms. I want to chuck it into the china cabinet or through a window, but that would only hurt the house, not the rock itself, and so I stand, with the thing in my arms, clenching and unclenching my jaw.
“What are you doing?” my mother asks, slapping a dish towel over her shoulder but not turning to look at me.
“Where are you going?” she adds as I walk through the living room and toward the front door.
Outside, Merrill Ann’s pickup is in the driveway, parked under the box elder tree. I heave the rock up onto the seat, find the keys under the floor mat, and drive out to the farm.
Up until two weeks ago, we were out here three or four days a week, working in the barn. Even so, the project was slow going, since she had to teach me how to do everything, and then more often than not we got distracted talking about something that happened in high school or standing outside the barn, watching Dad make even, rhythmic swaths in the tractor, back and forth, back and forth, as he planted the beans. It took him a long time to finish the planting, because, he said, he didn’t have Merrill Ann to help him. But I think he was taking his time. I think he just wanted to stay out there as long as he could, knowing we were out there with him. And we were taking our time as well, prolonging the end of the project as long as we could, a vain effort to suspend time with the result that, in the end, we didn’t finish at all.
I drive up the lane and park on the grass next to where the house is being rebuilt. The foundation has been relayed, but that is about all. It’s been a little low on the priority list; even Merrill Ann hasn’t brought it up. It is a taboo subject with my parents, of course, because no matter how many picture windows they decide on, she won’t be around to look out of them.
I haul the rock out of the passenger’s side, thinking hard as I lug it across the uneven yard to the barn. The table saw would be noisily satisfying, but the rock would only dull its blade. A hammer and chisel would probably be best. An expectant warmth fills my chest as I picture myself pounding the rock into dust like Thor himself.
But when I step into the barn, the first things I see are her tools. Dusty light is streaming in from the windows on the east side, and some of them catch at its stray beams, flashing bright. I set the rock on a workbench and try to ignore the fact that my fervor for destruction is waning. I go to the wall to look for the biggest hammer I can find. I know more or less where things are now, but as my eyes scan the rows of tools hung on sturdy corkboard, I notice something I have never seen before. There is a pattern. There is a reason she has placed the tools as she has. They aren’t grouped by size or by type, none of the obvious ways, but they are grouped by need, things for a certain task together, within easy reach. It is a system only a woodworker would understand or be able to utilize. These tools are meant for my sister’s use, they are meant to build porch swings and silly magazine holders for the bathroom and God alone knows how many kitchen chairs. They are not meant to destroy, and they are not meant to be idle.
I sit down on the bench next to the rock. With a hard shove, I send it over the edge and onto the floor. It lands heavily on its side, and I put my head in my hands.
In a few moments, the sound of a car coming up the lane drifts in through the open barn door. I hear a car door closing and my father’s voice, gradually becoming less muffled as he comes toward the barn.
“Joni?” He sounds anxious. “Are you out here?”
I look up to see him silhouetted in the doorway; he rests one hand on his stomach, gathering deep breaths, his face creased with concern.
Ambulances and EMTs flash through my brain.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, standing up.
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. She’s fine.” He heaves one last breath. “Everything’s fine. It’s just your mother saw you leave. She said you took that rock with you.”
My anger flares instantly.
“This rock?” I say, shoving it ineffectually with the side of my foot. “Is this the rock you’re so worried about? The stupid rock you’re obsessed with?”
“Careful,” he whispers, stepping quickly across the barn and scooping it up like it is a precious, two-ton baby. There is a reproach in his tone that makes me feel a little ashamed. It is his rock, after all, not mine.
I haven’t really argued with either of my parents since Easter, mostly because every time one of us gets ready to yell, there is a medication to pick up, or a doctor’s appointment to wait through, or the helpless sound of Merrill Ann puking in the bathroom. This time it is Merrill Ann’s barn, Merrill Ann’s tools, that stop me.
“What are you doing, Dad?” is all I say, sitting back down on the bench. “It’s a rock. Just accept it, all right?”
“Why did you bring it out here?”
I sigh. “Well. I was actually going to try to break it apart.”
“I was afraid of that.” He fingers a groove in the pitted surface. “I know you don’t like it when I talk about it. You think it’s all silly, this belief that there’s anything more to it than just being a rock.”
“You didn’t have to say anything, that rolling your eyes trick did all the talking for you. The deal is, there was a phone call this morning. It was Lincoln; the head guy of their science department or whatever, he was on the line. And he says this isn’t a rock.” He pauses here, stretching it out that way he used to do with bedtime stories. “He says he thinks this might be a tooth.”
I bend over and pick up a stray piece of twine that has caught around one of the bench’s wooden legs, curling it tightly around my little finger so that the end turns purple and then letting go and watching the string pop away from my skin. He has been right all along.
“What kind of tooth?” is all I can think of to say.
He shrugs. “Mammoth maybe. That’s what they found over at North Platte. They want to put it in a museum at the University.”
My dad sets the tooth down gently, and we walk out to the new foundation. He stamps one foot onto the grey cement, as if to test its strength.
“This is about where we found it,” he says. “Back when we first put the porch on. They think there might be a lot more under there.” He stares down at the dirt.
“What are you going to do?”
He smiles at me, not interested in rubbing my face in my mistake, only in the mystery that lies under our feet. “I told Merrill and your mother before I came out here. Merrill insists we should forget the house, dig up the whole lot, dig up the barn if we have to.” He tips his thumbs into the corners of his back pants pockets. “Some news photographer is even coming out to take pictures. Go figure.”
“Yeah,” I say, walking up closer.
“Who knows what’s buried under all of this.” His voice is more muffled behind me, and I think he has turned away, looking back down the lane, at the field and across the road at all the land there that belongs to him. “She always said this place was worth more than it looked,” he says, almost to himself. There are real, definite tears in his voice, which I pretend not to notice as he pauses to clear his throat.
As for me, all I can see is the farmhouse, not the way it used to look and not the way it looks now, only a foundation, but the shredded, raw look it had right after the tornado. The broken boards sticking up and Merrill Ann, sitting in her chair, face in the seed-feeding rain. I can almost feel the drops sting my skin, though the sky is blue and open. I finally understand him, that she is the reason he needs it to be more than a rock. That his rock and her rain are really the same thing. And finally I don’t envy their connection, because I share it.
“It’s strange,” I say, in what might be the clearest moment of communication I’ve ever had with my dad. “She’s seen so much, and she’s never been anywhere but here.”
“She’s a pilgrim soul,” Dad says, turning back toward me.
“Yeats.” I’m more than surprised at the reference.
“You’re not the only one who reads, you know.” He winks at me.
And I finally place it, now while I am standing here, where our house used to be, where our house will never be again.
“Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.”