Town and Country: What Going Back Gets You

Its population maybe 12,000 when college is in session, the town curls into a valley oval in shape, twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide.
  • Its population maybe 12,000 when college is in session, the town curls into a valley oval in shape, twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide.
  • Image by Stephen Vance

YOU LEAVE A LITTLE TOWN, and they speak of you — if at all — as if your departure, like hailstorms or miscarriage, were an act of God, not always understandable, but certainly part of a providential design whose immediate scribbles work out eventually (a blessing in disguise) for the benefit of all.

(“Who can know?” said my mother-in-law, venting opinion on my leaving for the city. “Perhaps it’s best for everyone concerned.” And I can’t write here — although the town believes it knows but doesn’t quite — why her son stayed and I went.)

My heart hankering for it, my head saying both “Forgive and forget” and “Don’t go,” I return to land that was settled more than a century ago by Midwesterners, originally German, Scandinavian, and Scotch-Irish, and in the main, Protestant and pietist. On the Thursday before Labor Day, I unpack city clothes into country bureau drawers, while the gray-muzzled dachshund leaps at my feet. Framed photographs line the mantel: the night our oldest child graduated from high school; her sister, hair flying, riding her bicycle through a mud puddle. There are more. You can guess them. Think, however, of what no one photographed. The screaming in the kitchen. You, leaning out the window to conjure heart-rending sunsets, loathing the real horizon.

“This time,” I tell myself, “look at it straight on, without music.”

Its population maybe 12,000 when college is in session, the town curls into a valley oval in shape, twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide. A river runs between black basalt cliffs. Foothills fringe its edges, and beyond the hills, mountains rise up — staggering — snow-capped all year.

The bloodlines that intertwine are as complicated as the creeks that run into the river and produce a physiognomy — short neck, brutish chin, thick torso, and sloped belly — that makes half the population appear to be first cousins.

The return ticket sits out on the dresser. I am just passing through.

The return ticket sits out on the dresser. I am just passing through.

No local family tree doesn’t have its poison apple and expurgated branches.

I finish my coffee and surmise that local history is right now growing several pages. Rumor will have it that I am at work on a novel set in the town. It will be said, “She has been a cross.”

Behind the lace curtains, what goes on here goes on everywhere. A “good face” and “best foot” are kept forward: the “front room,” “front” itself is imperative, requisite. Appearances are everything. What you don’t know, well, maybe it didn’t happen.

The return ticket sits out on the dresser. I am just passing through.

I UNPACKED. DRIVE TO THE country to visit Delia with the heart of gold. Whom for years I had envied and tried to imitate — even her bashful lisp, her cheerleader high spirits. Whose apparent contentment eluded me, even when I, like her, wore myself down with what were, after all, superficial good works (knitted mittens for the Christmas bazaar, one afternoon a week pushing a trolley of games and toothbrushes through hospital corridors).

The rich soil that drew early settlers lies in dark strips between fields of hay. A red barn stands, its doors open. “Smile, Jesus loves you,” in white letters arches above the doors. Far afield, corn harvesters drive down rows. Dust rises. Russet cows graze the green pastures (not one green, but hundreds). Orchards ridge the hills. Through drooping cottonwoods, you can see to the river. It sparkles.

A tankful of gas and no destination, I made this six-mile drive years ago, the tape player bleating Rickie Lee Jones’s paeans to L.A. “Something ought to happen,” I thought then, looking toward the horizon to see if a rescue team would grow between sky and last black ridge. If a lone eagle, flying over, would drop down a rope.

Bang the brass knocker. Delia greets me, her arms out. Only her legs, in striped shorts, have aged. Her face could be her college-age daughter’s. She hands me a frosty long-neck Lone Star. “See?” she fills up her brown eyes with meaning. “I don’t forget.” We settle back into needlepoint pillows (each one takes a year). Our bare feet up, toes wriggle. Delia polishes her toenails. Says: “Want me to paint yours?” She wonders aloud, “Will we see you at the brunch?” An annual function, the “pre-rodeo parade brunch.”

“I’ve promised to make at least a cameo experience,” I say.

“There are days,” she sighs, and her voice trails off. “Larry, he’s doing well.” Carefully shaped eyebrow raised, “Are you still happy there?”

On the first evening home, my husband takes me downtown to dinner, in the only restaurant that uses tablecloths at noon and night.

My parents moved every year or so. This is difficult for me to understand: my husband has not suffered “identity crisis.” He is indifferent to dislike. He casts for trout in streams into which his great-grandfather cast. In the eighth grade, he used a desk into whose wood his father had carved initials. Nights, under a lamp that was his grandfather’s, he ties deer hair and rooster neck feathers into Joe’s Hoppers and Royal Wulffs. A slight smile flits across his face. If you ask, “What are you thinking about?” he says, believing he tells the truth, “Nothing.”

Although I know people like him, what he has isn’t catching. I tried.

The salad plates are taken away, a nearby winery’s white poured, and we talk. The hot and rainless summer, the subsequent fire danger in forests. The “sex crime,” I’d read about in the letters between us: “Technically my husband says, “ ‘sex crime’ is a misnomer. He panicked and dropped her before he could get to that.” One of my husband’s old girlfriends from high school, cluttered by a silk print, strides across the low-lit room. She tilts her head to one side, as if that tilt turns her query casual. “Are you back for good?” she asks, and when I say I’m not, she shrugs and turns back to her table. My husband circles the pink linen with his index finger. One arm is larger than the other, from years of fly casting.

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