Authors: Lise McClendon
Tags: #romance, #coming of age, #humor, #young adult, #minnesota, #jane austen, #bees, #college and love, #polka, #college age, #lise mcclendon, #rory tate, #new adult fiction, #college age romance, #anne tyler
Jonny stared at the worn
spot in the linoleum in front of the sink. How had it come to this,
made sick by someone you thought you loved just months ago? Was it
really possible to fool yourself, to not know your deepest
A man could be an idiot.
For eight years he would never get back.
The polka mass had gone
better than expected. He hadn’t flubbed anything. His father had
been pleased. And to see his grandparents together, dancing like
they were young, made it all worthwhile. It gave him hope. You
could be lucky. You could find someone who understood you, someone
who would always be there for you. Jonny was inclined to be
optimistic. That was why he stayed married so long. He was sure
things would get better.
The feeling of angry regret
flooded back. In the parlor Cuppie’s mother chattered about the
city election. Jonny hadn’t mentioned Lenny’s fundraiser. Maybe he
could do it alone. The togetherness of playing with his family left
The door swung open. Before
Jonny could escape, his father stalked into the kitchen, a dark
look on his face. “You can help with the women’s work. Get
Jonny brought the cups and
saucers, creamer and sugar bowl, out on a tray and set it on the
table with the lace shawl and vase of roses. In the front yard with
its rose-covered arch, the sagging gate swung, the paint long gone
from the pickets. Jonny sent up a prayer for something to happen— a
tornado, an earthquake, maybe a fire—
so he wouldn’t have to sit
down, wouldn’t have to pour, wouldn’t have to talk. Cuppie sat six
feet away, motionless, hands folded in her lap. He felt her eyes on
him. All their eyes.
Flora St. John said in a
perky voice, “Cream and sugar for me, Jonny. You
Ozzie held the coffee pot
aloft. Jonny couldn’t move. He was trapped, a grown man in his
childhood house, a boy again, inert, unformed. The air felt
electric, like right before a storm. He wanted to bolt, out the
door, down the street. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t move at
His father poured coffee
into a porcelain cup with roses painted delicately on the side then
grumbled, “Do it. Cream and sugar. Move.”
Somehow they all were
subdued by caffeine and sugar. Jonny’s hands shook as he handed
Cuppie her coffee. More needed to be made. He got it going in the
kitchen and stared at the back door. Maybe he could walk away. Like
he’d done in Minneapolis. Just walk away.
Cuppie let the door swing
closed behind her. She looked pink from the heat. His heart
stopped. His worst nightmare, alone with Cuppie again.
I got it. Thanks.” It
came out more grateful than he felt. To his chagrin she folded her
arms and leaned against the table, staring at him.
You look fantastic.
You’re so fit, have you been running? Or is it just Sonya’s
cooking— she always made the strangest casseroles. Is that a new
shirt? Love the color. I’ve missed you, honey. Freckles just sits
on your chair, keeping it warm for you.” Freckles was her cat, a
huge orange tom with stripes, not spots. When Cuppie left for
clogging competitions they had a strained relationship, he and
He’ll get over
At nineteen he had agreed
to marry her. What a phrase,
, as if you took stock of
yourself, measured your life, your future, looking steely-eyed into
the maw of space and time. As if you
, when all you did was hang on,
neither boy nor man, thrust forward by hormones, adrenaline, and
vague notions of cars, regular sex, and rivers of beer. Jonny was
more mature than most boys his age. So said his mother and father.
So said Cuppie, and her parents. He was young to get married, but
they were both so mature— so said them all.
He’d had a few other
girlfriends in high school but he’d only had one real girlfriend,
the kind who let you do anything. He and Cuppie fooled around all
the time in her room, with her parents downstairs watching
television. Small and squealing with breasts like ripe apples and a
bouncy, gymnastic way about her, she laughed a lot during sex,
slapped him playfully on the ass, did things he’d only read about
in magazines. She told Ed and Flora that Jonny tickled her, or read
her the funnies. If they were fools to believe her, he was a bigger
fool, but a happy one. His friends told him he’d be a jerk to give
all that up.
During semester break his
freshman year they got engaged. Her parents gave her a ring, her
great-grandmother’s. On a sweltering July day they danced the polka
and cut angel food cake. He didn’t remember the ceremony but the
party was a blast. If this was the way married life was, he’d
thought, it’ll be great.
According to Artie, that was his problem. Love
would conquer all, including clogging, tomcats, and
incompatibility. He didn’t really know Cuppie. She was his bed
partner, his cook, his movie date, his wife. She arranged their
apartment, their meals, their vacations, their friends. They did
whatever she wanted, and he couldn’t figure out how to stop her
short of handcuffs. It was his fault for letting it go on.
Everything was his fault in the end, because he had been an idiot
at the beginning.
Oh, honey,” she was
saying in the kitchen, stepping toward him. “You look so
I’m not. I couldn’t be
happier.” He moved away.
How can you say that?”
Because I wanted out and
I am out. I told you. It’s over.” He was at the door now but turned
back, feeling the heat in his face. “Why are you here?”
To see you, of course.
Why now? It’s been
I thought you needed a
little space. Time to think, sweetie, to remember our good times—
to miss me.”
Aren’t you dating some
dad from the preschool.” The word had gotten back to him that she
had met a divorced father, an airline pilot, probably dashing in
shiny epaulets. Not that he cared. He was jealous for ten seconds,
then incredibly relieved.
Who told you that? I have
been home every night, crying my eyes out.” She sounded about as
sincere as Dolly Parton in her favorite movie,
. The pilot probably
saw her clogging video on the Internet. A day to remember: at work
when somebody sent the link to everyone.
I don’t care. I’ve moved
on. Get it into your head. Our marriage is over. Done.
Cruel but true— and
necessary. Some people never got it. You could hit them with
information and they never showed the tiniest indication that you’d
made an impression. Were they thick-skinned, self-possessed, able
to slough off criticism? Or so narcissistic that whatever you said
made no difference if they disagreed?
She only cared about
herself, that he had tarnished her public image. This time, at
least, she didn’t argue. She was silent, crossing her arms and
giving him her annoyed look that once upon a time had an effect on
I’m leaving now. Go
An old Springsteen song
was on the car radio,
, the words only too apt. Love really
was a sideshow with trick mirrors. Jonny turned up the bittersweet
tune until it boomed, driving too fast out of town, going north
through the woods, turning off onto the farm lane where the
elderberries grew thick in the barrow pits. He sang along,
remembering when he’d first heard it, at ten or eleven. He thought
it was about a fabulous amusement park somewhere.
His old Fairlane was rusted
and ancient, built like a tank. It bounced hard in a pothole. He
rolled down the window and no, he didn’t let the wind blow through
his hair, despite Bruce on the radio. Thanks to Lenny he had all
the old lyrics in his head. He stuck out his elbow, letting his
temper simmer. Seeing Cuppie had pissed him off. At himself mostly,
but a little at her.
He looked up into the
treetops, searching for birds, looking for a hawk in the sky. He
didn’t want to think about her anymore. She wasn’t part of his life
anymore. The sky was blue. It was summer. She wouldn’t ruin
His grandparents’ farm was
on this lane. He passed a collapsing barn where once there had been
dairy cows. You couldn’t even smell it anymore. Another grove of
birch and maples in a ravine, then he climbed up the other side and
turned in at the old mailbox with the name: ‘KNBL.’ Reinholt was
too cheap to buy vowels.
The drive wound through
apple orchards and maple woods tangled with undergrowth. The apple
trees were still oiled in the spring and fall, trimmed in late
winter, picked in autumn. Nora hired it out now. The apple
cooperative Reinholt founded back in the fifties helped, but
migrant workers did most of the work these days. As soon as he
could walk Jonny helped pick apples, running around with his sibs,
gathering windfall, throwing it into a basket. His mother made pies
and sauce with these apples, and sold them at a farm stand on the
highway until she decided that was too much work.
The apple trees looked more
gnarled than he remembered. Everybody was getting older, lumpier.
He slowed, looking down the straight rows, trees lost here and
there to fire blight or storms. At the end of the orchard a cluster
of buildings marked the end of the drive. The dingy farmhouse, gray
and sagging where it once was bright and alive, was rented to a
back-to-the-earth couple who raised goats. Beside the old barn
their vegetable garden was fenced high to keep out the deer— and
possibly goats. It looked lush, buzzing with insects. The yellow
flowers of the squash were as big as trumpets, the bean teepees ten
No one answered his knock.
No vehicle in the yard or barn. He supposed they wouldn’t mind his
wandering around. Nora had inherited the farm from her parents who
inherited it from her grandfather. Maybe that was why she never
sold it. Ozzie expressed zero interest in farming. Jonny paused by
the vegetables, admiring their vigor.
Behind the barn, an old
milking shed listed to the south, advertising its desire to fall
down. A corn crib, its wire sides rusted and bent but the round
metal roof intact, sat empty. The days of cornfields were long
gone, replaced by blueberry bushes and alfalfa. Nora had put in
blueberries thirty years ago and was known as a local blueberry
guru. Farmers pumped her for information about cultivation,
varieties, and cultivars. She still managed her berries on the far
end of the apple orchard, next to the woods to keep poachers away.
Maybe the blueberries kept her from selling out.
The square metal door of
the corncrib hung on one hinge. He pushed it open and stepped into
the round wire structure with the cement floor. Dry kernels wedged
in cracks, surviving all these years. A moldy hay bale sat on one
side with brown leaves around it. Jonny and Wendy had played in
here when they were children, pretending it was their house. Artie
laughed at them, he had a literal mind. A round house? It looked
more like a tea kettle.
He was glad he wasn’t a kid
anymore. But sometimes he felt like he’d skipped an important step
by marrying so young. He jumped straight into adulthood and
responsibility. He had no one to blame but himself. He turned in a
circle inside the corn crib. What was the point of continually
beating yourself up? He just needed to move on.
He sighed and sat down on
the bale. Instantly a loud squeal came from below. He jumped to his
feet and was face to face with an enormous raccoon, standing on its
hind legs, snarling.
Hey, fat bastard. Wanna
dance?” The animal came around the bale toward him, hissing, his
enormous belly swinging.
Jonny backed out the door
and watched the raccoon go down on all fours and give him a last
baring of teeth. “All yours, chubby.”
In the Owl hours later,
Jonny put his feet up on the table. The afternoon had run away with
him and here he was, chair pushed back, leafing through the
afternoon’s sketches while he drank a beer. After a walk through
the apple orchards kicking leaves and feeling stupid, he dug the
sketch pad out of his trunk. He used to carry it everywhere,
doodling constantly, but he couldn’t remember when he’d sketched
last. Making a living drawing office parks made sketching old barns
seem childish. But today he’d gotten a cramp in his hand, drawing
so fast and furiously.
He’d drawn twelve different
angles on the old corn crib. Even tried to capture the snarl in the
raccoon’s muzzle but that didn’t turn out very well. Straight
lines, perspective, capturing the depth and breadth of a building
in two dimensions, that was what he did best. Something about that
corn crib. Its roundness, and that funny funnel-like roof. It
What if it had solid walls,
not mesh wire? Like a— what did they call those short, squatty
silos? Grain bins. Could you live in a grain bin, a sort of metal
yurt? He ripped out a clean sheet of paper and drew the corn crib
with solid sides this time, added a door, a couple windows, the
vent at the top now a chimney. He squinted at it. Just precious, a
first-grader’s version of a house. He tore it up, started over,
spreading out his drawings over the table and scribbling so
feverishly he knocked his empty bottle off.