It's after midnight, and my wife still isn't home. There's no sense in sleeping so I get up and lay the blanket along the back of the sofa. I turn on some lights, pick up the house. Even though it's still dark, even though it'll be dark for hours, I've decided it's morning. The house needs to look the part.
I go in the kitchen and put the coffee on. I turn up the kitchen radio and the one in the living room so the whole house feels awake, and in discussion. The first light starts warming behind the clouds and I start cracking eggs for breakfast. I make a complete spread with bacon, toast and pancakes; you don't have to think when you're cooking. You can whisk and focus on timing.
I finish breakfast and wait until seven. Then I bang on my neighbor's door.
"Ned," I say. "You awake?"
He comes to the door in his boxers. He's in his forties too, and starting to sag. He doesn't say anything—just pops the screen door and I follow him in. He goes into the bathroom. I open the fridge and get some orange juice. I feed the dog. It's warm.
The toilet flushes.
"Now what is it?" Ned says, scratching his stomach.
"It's Irene." I say. The dog, Rusty, chomps away on his food. "You seen her?"
"Not lately," he says, matting down his hair. He looks around for his robe, then shrugs and comes into the kitchen. "How long's she been gone?"
"A day?" He sits back. "Well, Owen..."
"I know. I don't know." I get up and start pacing. I start opening and shutting cupboards. Ned's used to me. "You want coffee?" I ask
"Yeah," he says, then sits back and nods.
Irene is my wife and she leaves me from time to time. I never know when it's coming. She never takes anything with her (clothes, toothbrush), and she never leaves after a fight. She leaves when things are comfortable—when we're moving around the kitchen like clockwork. We'll have dinner, and she'll go run errands. And then she doesn't come back for two, three days at a time.
Ned gets up to use the phone. It's going on eight.
"That's right," he says. "You were right. It is that flu. Yep. Yeah, I'll try to be in tomorrow."
"You not feeling well?"
"You're not feeling well," he says. "C'mon. Let's get out of here."
Ned's got a 1987 Chevy truck in perfect condition. There are some things he's careful with. I put out my cigarette and get in.
I don't worry about Irene leaving anymore. I'm used to it; she takes off a couple times a year and I know she gets angry if I find her too fast. I wouldn't call her handicapped, but she has some conditions. She used to see lots of specialists (she didn't talk until she was ten), and when she gets frustrated she swears, and sometimes spits and throws things. She had an outburst when she was fourteen that sent her mother to the hospital and the doctors had her locked up for awhile. After that her parents divorced, and her father said she'd never see another doctor. And she hasn't.
"We've been doing this a lot lately." Ned says, backing out.
I don't say anything. Then, "You don't have to."
"It's not this, it's..." he says as he turns on the wipers. It's spitting. "Irene's just leaving a lot lately."
"I know." I say. "I don't know what it is."
"Well, people are talking." He looks at the houses, at the clouds rolling in. "I don't want to..."
"Ned," I say. "You know me, you know Irene. She just runs off."
"I don't know, Owen." He shakes his head. "If you can't get a hold of her, if you can't figure her out, somebody else's going to."
Irene and I moved to Marshfield, Iowa ten years ago. It's enough of a town so there's always someone around, but not so big that there's other dangers. Before Iowa it was Santa Fe. We lived just outside of the city and loved it, how you could see for miles in any direction, night and day. Irene loved to sit on the Spanish roof and smoke menthols and paint her toenails. She'd sit up there, this little skinny woman in these huge men's shirts (she loved the way my shirts swallowed her) crouched over, looking. Just seeing everything. I'd climb up there every night and sit with her, and see little splotches of her polish, her toe prints on the shingles.
We'd only lived there a few weeks when she took off. I didn't know my way around—the city was one way, and large, and then there was the desert, burning, unfamiliar, and after three days I got worried. I called the police. They found her fifty miles away on a horse, clipping through the dirt like it was on fire. They yelled, said they'd shoot her horse if she didn't stop and that got her mad and she took off. She turned up at the house two days later, sunburned, blistered, so dirty she looked Mexican. She smiled at me and walked straight into the bathroom, dropping her clothes in little sandy heaps as she went. There was no horse.
"Did I ever tell you about Santa Fe?" I ask Ned.
"Yep." He pulls into the hardware store.
"Do you think she'll be gone that long?"
"There's no horses out here, Owen." He parks in the back, and turns the truck off. "Listen, people are saying Irene's hanging around with Sid Meyers."
"Okay," I say. "She's probably inside, then."
"No," he taps on the steering wheel. "I mean a lot of time. People are starting to talk, Owen."
"Come on, Ned." I say, getting out of the truck. "Irene's not like that."
"It's not just when she runs off. She's been out to lunch with him, out walking around even when she's still coming home."
"Who told you this?"
He didn't say anything.
"You saw her?"
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"I am saying something. I wanted to be sure."
"Sure? You don't think she's..."
Ned shrugs. It doesn't reassure me.
"You want me to come in with you?" he asks.
"No." I say, and shut the door.
Sid's a tall, pear-shaped man in his fifties; he runs the hardware store and lives in a one-bedroom above Lou's diner. He never married. Irene and I sometimes see him and his mother at church, and shake hands and talk about things as people slowly make their way out of pews. I think back and remember how I would end up talking with Sid's mother, a frail, smelly thing, and Irene would lean on the pew, talking with Sid. What did they talk about? What did they have to say to each other?
I go in the store. Sid wasn't behind the counter, or in the back. I found Jim, a high school kid stocking shelves.
"Hey, you seen my wife? You know Irene?" The kid nods. "I heard she's been hanging around here."
"Not today." He puts down a case of sprinkler heads. "I haven't seen anybody all day."
"What about Sid? Is he around?"
"Not today. You want me to tell him you were here?"
"Yeah, tell him. Listen," I lean into the kid a little. "You see him in here with my wife?"
"No," he says, surprised. "I mean, I see her in here, but not like, with him."
"She comes in, though?"
"Yeah, she comes in and they talk at the counter."
"Was it yesterday?" The kid looks puzzled.
"It was or it wasn't. Was it yesterday?"
"Yeah. But then she left. That's all I know."
"Well, when you see him," I pick up some sprinkler heads and hold them, then put them down. The kid looks worried, and looks around behind me. "Just tell him I was here."
Irene didn't take off until we'd been in Iowa for a year. I thought she might be done running. We had opened a store of rod iron furnishings and I made gates, balcony rails, and kitschy mailboxes. We'd sell furniture and candles and other things Irene liked in the catalogs. It's a far cry from the shipbuilding I used to do, but Irene liked it here and would walk around the store, dusting things, chatting with the girls behind the register. She'd come in the back and sit with me, and talk about people in town, business. She'd turn off the radio and sing me French camp songs she learned when she was little. One day I was welding some antique chains and she snuck up and put her hands on me. I put my torch down and yelled, pulled my mask up and said Irene this is dangerous, what are you doing? and when I turned around there she was, completely naked. She was barefoot even. She wasn't listening.
At first, I went after her right away, making sure she wasn't bothering people, that people weren't taking advantage of her, but she didn't like it when I found her right away. The first time I found her folding other people's whites in the laundromat, chatting with the women. I'd find her and she'd grin and run away even further. So I started waiting a day, giving her a head start. We knew everyone in town, and I trusted them. What was Sid doing with her all this time? I didn't want to know. Suddenly this wasn't routine. I wanted her home. I wanted to find some things out for sure.
I go back to Ned's and put on some of his clothes: a gray suit, a blue shirt. Irene wouldn't know me in a suit. I tuck my hair up in a dress hat and put on a pair of Ned's glasses—they're bifocals, and make me a little woozy.
"It's okay," Ned says, lighting his cigarette. We're smoking inside. Ned's divorced. "But I still know it's you. People'll ask if you're on your way to a wedding."
"Well," I take the hat off. My hair falls down to my shoulders, still thick and brown. "Let's cut this."
He doesn't ask me if I'm sure. he's smart enough not to give me an out. Ned's father was a barber, and he does a nice job. Freeing up all that weight, watching it fall onto his kitchen floor, makes me feel younger, lighter. He buzzes the back.
I take the hand mirror and look at myself. "It's still me, though, isn't it?"
"It's always going to be you," Ned says.
I tug on my beard. It's bushy, long, taking up half my face and neck. I keep touching it, looking in the mirror. Ned leaves the room and comes back with hot towels and a razor.
Irene's never seen me without a beard; I haven't seen myself without it since high school. I used to have nightmares about not having my beard.
"What am I doing?" I say, razor in hand.
"Here," Ned takes it from me. "Now close your eyes."
I mentioned other men to Irene just once, when we were dating. I had to go back to Virginia to deal with my brother and she kept picking up and setting down these glass animal figurines on the coffee table.
"Look, Irene. This isn't easy for me."
"Easy for you. You're leaving. Easy for you. I have to stay here. Here. By myself. Here!"
"I don't like thinking about you here either, all by yourself. All these other guys around."
"I know there's other guys. I see how they look at you at work. You'll go on dates and..."
I didn't finish because she hit me. Not a slap, but a full punch to the mouth. I was so surprised I fell down. I was so surprised. She was crying a little. When I got up she kicked me, hard, in the shin and I hurried out the door.
She wrote me letters, every single day, on the backs of old waitress tabs, the used ones that were stained with coffee rings. Her dad was cheap and set them by the register to use as scratch paper. They made me homesick. Sometimes I smelled them. When I got back I asked her to marry me.
"So what else have you been hearing?"
"I don't know, Owen," Ned scrapes my face. It's strange, feeling something so close. My skin feels charged and delicate. "Margie said something."
"Margie's always saying something." I keep my eyes closed.
"I know." He says. "But she was talking with Ethel, and you know Ethel." He pauses then. "They were saying how every time Irene runs, that's the first place she goes, in the hardware store, right to Sid."
"Well, that doesn't mean..."
"I know." He pats my face with aftershave. It stings, and he lays his hands back on my face with a coolant, just holds them there for a minute. He pats my face one more time and says, "All right. Let's get a look at you."
I open my eyes and there's my face. I'm forty years old. I've seen my face all my life, been looking at the same eyes in the mirror, but right now it takes a minute, it takes me raising my hand to touch everything, to remember it's all mine.
"Now what?" he says, standing back.
I look young; I look like the boy who went to jail, the boy who tore his family apart. But I sit differently; the lines on my face are different. I see the boy, but there's more than him in my face now.
"Try and find Sid," I say, and pat Ned on the back.
Before Irene, I dated women who were crazy in their own ways; women who had too many kids, who were insanely jealous, who couldn't stand to see themselves naked. I liked women who needed things, who needed taking care of. In their ignorance, in their dependence, they made me feel strong.
But there was something in Irene—something her disorder (if you could call it that) gave her that these other women, normal women, didn't have. Irene was stubborn. These other women loved to take charity, to have me take care of them. Irene had a hard time at things; instructions were impossible for her, and she never got through the grocery check-out without a fight, but she always wanted me to be quiet. "I'll figure this out," she'd say, and keep assembling the fan backwards.
I walk down to the diner, looking at the upstairs windows trying to see Sid. Ethel walks by, and Margie. They turn around and look at me twice, not because they recognize me, but because strangers are rare, especially men in suits on a Saturday. I hear them say "Interstate?" as they go inside. I follow them in.
They take a booth along the side, and I sit at the counter. It'd be too strange to sit in a booth alone. I sit next to Jim and Pete; they both have farms outside of town.
"Coffee?" Jackie asks. Jackie's in her thirties. She always looks warm and tan, like lying in a field in June.
"You want a menu?"
I nod. She hands it to me and lets her fingers linger a bit.
"You know what she wants is one of them dogs of Owen's." Jim says. He and Pete are drinking coffee; their plates clean except for streaks of gravy.
"The big ones?"
"Yeah, the black and white one you put your mail in. Imagine that. Putting your mail in a dog—how's that going to look?"
"Aw, who cares? Bernice's got some house for ours. I don't pay any attention."
"You know how much one of them costs?"
Jackie comes back to take my order. I get the biscuits and gravy.
"What I wonder is how they make a living doing that," Jim says, drinking coffee.
"And with that wife of his."
"Irene? She's sweet."
"I bet she's got bills or something," Pete says. "She's never out of his sight unless she's in one of her spells."
"They don't have kids. What does she do in there all day?"
"It is strange."
I start eating. I'm hungry, but I don't feel like eating. I drink the coffee.
"Maybe she's got a drinking problem."
"Maybe Owen does. No, I shouldn't say that." Jim leans back on his stool. "But you can't keep a woman inside like that all the time. Mary stayed at home with the kids, but she used to tell me if she didn't get to the store or church, or just somewhere out of the house, she went a little crazy."
"You boys need anything else?" Jackie comes over to them.
"No, sweetheart. We're good."
I go around back and ring the bell for Sid's apartment. I ring again and I start working on the lock. I don't like that I'm doing this, that I still know how to do this, but I do it and go in.
Nobody's home. It's one big room with a bed in the middle, piled with men's clothing. Hawkeye posters fill the walls.
There're papers all over the coffee table, old mail, credit card offers, and a stack of insurance papers and bills. Oncology. Outpatient forms. Envelopes from Mayo. Prostate doctors.
Then I hear Sid trying to get his key in the door. I think about staying where I am, but at the last second I duck out the window and down the fire escape.
I adjust my glasses and ring the bell.
"Yes?" he says. He doesn't recognize me. He looks tired.
"I'm looking for Sidney Meyers."
He sighs. "You got me."
"I'm not selling anything," I say. I wonder how long he's been sick, if he's told anyone. "My name's Bill Murch. I'm with the state correctional facility. I wanted to ask you a few question about Irene Burkman. I understand you're friends with her and Owen?"
"Is she all right?"
"That's what we're trying to find out." I pull out the pad I stole from the diner. "What can you tell me about Irene? Are you two close?"
"Irene's a great woman, but she gets off sometimes, you know?"
"She's got some kind of, I don't know, disorder that she just wanders around town for a few days."
"And no one comes after her?"
"You know, her and Owen have been living here for years. He used to come right out and get her, but now he just takes his time. I mean, this is a small town, we take care of each other, but that's not to say that something couldn't happen, you know?"
"So do you see Irene when she's out?"
He steps out of his doorway. "I take her out to lunch. I make sure she's got something to eat. She gets in this state—and all she ever wants to talk about is the circus. I don't know if it's true or not, but she tells all these stories about working for a circus." He smiles. "She tells a great story. Real funny woman. We eat, I put some money in her pocket, and I don't know where she goes after that."
"Do you see her any other times, when she's not in this state?"
He hesitates. "Yeah, I do. She comes by the shop sometimes when Owen's working."
"Are you romantically involved?"
"Can you ask stuff like that?" he says, folding his arms. He's grinning, though.
"No, we're not. She's lonesome. She just wants somebody to talk to. That's why she takes off, I think. I think she's lonesome. But talk to Owen." He goes back inside. "That's the man you need to talk to."
"Do you know where I could find him?"
"Now?" He looks at his watch. "If he's not at the store, I'd try Suds on Main. You know where that is?"
I go down to the bar. It's the regular crowd after work. I don't think I'm here usually. I wouldn't think to send someone here looking for me, but seeing the familiar faces, my open stool, I remember.
"I'll have a Pabst," I say to Billy. I take a stool further down than usual. The regular crowd is here, but it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
When Billy comes back with the beer I ask: "Is Owen Burkman around?"
"Owen?" he says, looking around. "Hey Bill, you seen Owen around?"
Billy shrugs, and looks to Buck and Nick. They shake their heads, and look at me, turning away from the news, the flashes of war and new cancer drugs.
"You a friend of Owen's?" Billy asks, wiping down the bar in front of me.
"I'm actually looking for his wife. I heard this might be where I'd find him, or her."
They all laugh a little. "You won't see Irene in here. Owen keeps a tight watch on her."
"Is that right?"
"Who are you, anyway? You a friend of Owen's?" Billy says again, leaning on the bar. The other men have turned away, pretending not to listen.
"I'm Irene's brother. She wasn't at the house so I thought she might be out someplace."
"She did this when you were kids, too, then?" Billy asks.
"Yeah," I lie. I don't know. "Has she been around?"
"Don't tell your brother-in-law because he hates it when she's in here, but we let her clean the dishes in kitchen. She might still be here. You want to go talk to her?"
I finish my beer and nod.
"Yeah, right through that door in the back." Billy says. "It's nice to meet you. Come back some time." I shake his hand.
"Matt." I say.
"Billy. And bring Irene! Tell her she did a great job today."
I walk down the hallway and put my hand on the door. I just want to take her home. I want to listen to her. I can hear the big steamer machine running and I just think about her getting too close, about what the steam could do to her face, her hands. I think about what would happen if she really left.
I open the door. No one's there.
By now it's dark and I walk back home, the glasses in my pocket, the tie undone. I take the back streets so people don't stop and ask if I'm in trouble.
I take Union Road; it runs between backyards and farmland and as the darkness comes on it gives me a peaceful, protected feeling. All these back lights, these views into people's kitchens, make me think someone is waiting up for me, someone is awake, watching over this land.
There's something about the Midwest that makes you think, early on, about settling down. All that openness, all that space, makes for this desperate need for someone to fill it with. Together you can harvest, you can survive. And there is love in Iowa—it's not just all work—but there's still that sense of survival that just doesn't exist in cities, that exists only in places where the sky holds people accountable. Where there isn't anywhere to hide.
I go home and sit in the living room. Then, when the first light starts coming through the clouds, I stand up and go out again.
I drive around all morning. I cut through the alleys, stick my head through people's doorways, check the laundromat. I go in the gas station and buy some beef jerky.
Ned's working today and I stop by when he's on lunch. He doesn't look surprised to see me, just comes over with his brown sack and sits down.
"Still nothing?" he says.
I shake my head.
"Owen, you're making yourself sick. Why? You never used to let this get to you."
"I think she's really gone." I don't want to look at him. I run my fingers along the cracks in the table.
Ned sighs, and leans back a little.
"She'll come back," he says. He takes another bite from his balogna sandwich. The tables are round and greasy. Most of the other men eat their food off trays, scraping their plates loudly. "You need some sleep, Owen. She's not going to want to come back to you looking like that."
I go back home and lie on the sofa. I have a recurring dream about Irene. It's late and I go walking in Ned's backyard, out where the trees start to thin out to make way for the country. The moon's full and bright and gives me some solid streaks to work with. It's prairie for days, for years, and I think she might be sleeping in the tall grass. But there's so much grass that I panic and start yelling her name. Then there's an elephant, way off in the distance. He gives a battle cry and starts running full force, stomping up dirt in clouds. He gets closer and there's a white speck on his back, shouting circus marches as loud as she can. Bum ba dum bum bum ba dum. Little Irene. The elephant isn't decorated; no spangles or headpieces—just natural like she'd found him out there and claimed him for her own. They run right past me; I can smell the thick clay elephant smell, see the deep wrinkles in his legs, and see Irene in her white shiny leotard, waving. I'm the only one there, but she doesn't look at me. It's like she's waving to an audience, that I'm one of many. Her hair's flying everywhere. My eyes well up and I cry out to her.
And then I wake up.
I leave the house and walk to Ned's, through his backyard, into the farmland. There's no prairie back here, but the fields open up just like the dream, except brighter. The summer sun pours down and the stalks, so tall and regal and golden, bend and sway like a massive, rusted ocean.
I go in. The stalks are high, six feet, and sway a little above my head. I'm walking blindly, everything before me is golden, and everything above is sky. There's nothing else left.
I hear someone singing off to my right. I stop and the rustling sound continues, like piles and piles of autumn leaves being pushed up against the side of the house. Irene's wearing a blue shirt. I can see flashes of it in between the stalks and she's walking diagonally, cutting in-between rows, taking long, high steps like she's trudging through snowdrifts. My stomach jumps.
I watch the corn ripple around her and when she comes to a stop I get close, crouching down so she can't see me. She lies down in a row and I lie beside her, looking up at the sky through the rusted waves. My head is pressed into the earth. I can feel broken stalks poking into my back. She just lays there, in the field, in my dirty old shirt, in her corduroy pants, her hair greasy and flat. She's not ashamed of anything. Then she turns, and touches my face. We stay there until the sun goes down. And then, she lets me follow her.
Title graphic: "Storm Coming" Copyright © Julie Greenwood 2013. Used by permission of the artist.