Older Sister hemmed and hawed and pranced around from one foot to the other. A grin spread across her face. She looked a lot like the lady I had come for, but more beautiful, mature, and nicer. If my target had been trapped like this, she’d have lashed out like an adder and stung someone, me most likely.
The hippy kid from Philly let out a shrill whistle that made the children in the yard giggle and the birds all explode out of the trees with cries like school bell alarms. She said, “Well, is that everything?” as she pointed to my knapsack. I nodded at her, and she canted her head and rolled her eyes in a goofy way and gave me a wicked smile. “I guess all I can say is ‘come in.’” Of course she could have said something else, but she was too kind and besides these were the 1960s and peace and love and dove adorned the world.
I said, “I’ll see them off,” and headed back to the car and bumped fists with the hippy Kid from Philly. I leaned in the window and said, “Thanks” to the car thief. The hippy kid from Philly grabbed my hand and slipped a ten spot into my fist. I said, as I smiled, “Naw, I can’t…” He turned to the car thief and said in his gravelly voice, “Let’s head out for better things,” and the back tires on the Biscayne burned a little rubber.
When I turned to the porch there was no one there and the kids had disappeared and I glanced up the street and the brown Biscayne turned the corner. I felt about as big as one of the red ants that toiled alongside the busted-up concrete in the old sidewalk. Then I heard the Volkswagen putter and I looked and the kids were in the back seat with both their mugs pasted up against the window as they made wild and funny faces at me, pulling on their ears and sticking their tongues out, putting their index fingers into the corners of their mouths pulling them wide. Older Sister sat in the driver’s seat staring at me. “Well. Are you coming?”
I looked at my gear and shrugged. She yelled, “Drop it inside the front door.” I hesitated. She said, “We don’t lock the door. This is Iowa.”
In the Bug she chirped, not unlike a happy house sparrow sitting in a maple tree, “She’s at class, today I think it’s chemistry.” The maple leaves hinted at turning and there was a bank of low clouds in the west. “She’s a freshman, says she’s going to be a psychiatrist.” She looked at me and rolled her eyes, “But you probably know all this.” I didn’t, other than my heartthrob was in college. What she wanted to be wasn’t related to my intent. “I don’t have any place for you to sleep unless it’s on the couch . . . We need to go to the grocery store . . . I’d like to stop and call my husband and tell him . . . You should make sure you go see . . .” I loved the old houses as we drove down the street.
We picked up my heartthrob in front of campus. When she saw me her eyes grew large and she got one of those, “Well, I’ll be . . .” looks on her face that changed suddenly like a window blind had been pulled. In the car she didn’t speak to me other than, “What are you doing here?”
Older Sister, “Tch, tch.”
I slept on the couch. For six nights. Older Sister’s husband worked nights. Once I went with him on the BMW motorcycle he was trying to sell. We roared to a lake near Cedar Rapids. He swam for hours. I smoked Winstons. I went to Burlington with him and we drank beer in an old bar frequented by Negroes. No other white guys, just us. We played old blues—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson—on the jukebox as the Negroes ignored us. Like we didn’t matter.
I shopped for groceries, cut the lawn, pruned trees, washed dishes, ran the vacuum cleaner, anything to help out so I wasn’t a leech. Anything to ingratiate myself so my intended target would pay attention to me, but she was busy with chemistry and English and French and elementary psychology. Deep down I knew if she’d been interested in me she’d have found time.
I found myself drawn to Older Sister. Helped her stir dough for peanutbutter cookies, roll out pasta for lasagna, wash lettuce for salad, chop carrots and onions for soup.
Two nights before I was supposed to leave, I phoned Wayne’s granddad but the phone service was so poor I didn’t get to finish our conversation. I decided to head down there and catch up with Wayne before he hitched up to Iowa City.
My last night there, Heartthrob was giving the two young boys a bath and somehow jammed her hand through the bathroom window and cut it. Blood shot over everything. They hauled her to the hospital and I was left with those two boys. They had climbed out of the bathtub and were in the bedroom coloring in coloring books. Their little pink butts were bare and water dripped off their elbows and made spots on the hardwood oak floors.
I scooped them up with both my arms as they kicked and squealed. Rage vaulted into my forehead like the heated tip of a bayonet. I bellowed, screamed, and cussed them out. Dropped them in the water like bombs, then gathered the busted window glass left on the sill and as the kids cried, I told them to “Shut the f**k up.” I wondered what was wrong with me.
Later, after Older Sister, my quarry, and the brother-in-law came home, we had a Strohs or two and then went to sleep. In the middle of the night I heard Heartthrob sobbing. Her bedroom was just down the hall from the front room. I heard her crying and I could have slipped down there and comforted her. I just laid there listening. She mumbled and sniffled. Finally she said, “Ken.”
“Are you sad?”
I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t think I was sad. I wasn’t happy that I’d come all that way to be ignored. But I couldn’t blame her either. She hadn’t invited me. I wasn’t sad.
“Are you sad for all the black people and Jews who have died at the hands of the white man?”
I thought, yeah I’m sad for them, but I’m sadder for all the Marines getting their asses shot off in Vietnam.
“No, well, yes…but let me explain what I mean…I mean…”, but then I didn’t say anything.
Brother-in-law and my quarry hauled me to the edge of town so I could thumb a ride. She stood leaning against the yellow Bug with her arms folded, looking down the street at a mattress shop. I walked up and tried to give her a goodbye kiss. She resisted. Only let my lips brush hers. Some crows rasped out of an oak tree. I stalked off and stuck my thumb out, looking for a ride all the way to Branson, MO.