PEEL THESE COUPLE of potatoes and make the pig happy, her sister says. It’s been eating dirt.
Molly gets taken by the arm into the kitchen, Molly looking right past her―she is the shorter sister―right past her ear. You see another duster out there? That spread of cloud isn’t a thing to worry over, says her sister.
She gives Molly the peeler to grip. Molly takes up a potato in such a way as to break your heart, like it was left alone in the bin. Which it almost is.
Her sister goes about her business, ripping feed sacks into strips. She has been up to this since early, since she saw her head shape in dust around her pillow. She has seen that before, when she was sure no weather like this could go on and on and she didn’t fuss with caulking the windows with feed sack. She’s going to fuss now. She was never so careful a cleaner as Molly, Molly used to sweep at the dust in the middle of the night.
She steps out to the barn to get another sack and returns quick.
The kitchen’s empty. She throws down her burden, she wipes her hands on her bum. Molly!
Where she finds her, this time in the bedroom, Molly’s face is wet, teared-up. The pump’s about dry out there and you’ve got it spurting, says her sister. She drags her back into the kitchen.
She finishes the potatoes herself with Molly looking on, Molly looking on and on. You got to keep busy, she says. She gives her the scrub brush.
Molly sinks to her knees. There is hardly room for both women in the kitchen and Molly works wide, will scrub out a whole corner in a single swath. Her sister splashes down some dishwater and Molly scrubs and scrubs, then sits back on her haunches and looks toward the bedroom and coughs.
You catch that dust cough now? Her sister pours milk into a cup and gives it to her. Tastes like tumbleweed, she says. Cow doesn’t eat anything else.
Molly stares into the cup. Molly drinks it.
Her sister starts ripping the strips of feed sack again, humming what song she heard on the neighbor’s radio. Car coming, she says after a bit.
Molly’s already half legged it back to the bedroom. Her sister doesn’t aim to stop her, she hasn’t the heart for it, she knows who’s coming too.
The old young man drags in, his britches gone to thread and his head low. Molly any better?
She’s in the room, she says.
He takes a seat in a turned-around spindle-back chair. Well? Get her out.
You do it.
He does not so much as move a muscle.
She goes in to coax. Molly, come on, she says. He’s here. He’s tired of coming.
She has to pull her out this time, pry her fingers free of the door frame, then she forces her to sit beside him at the table that he’s pulled the chair to.
Honey. He takes her hand.
I kept her in the house all day today, her sister says. It’s not so far to the road that if she’d run, with her luck, there’d be a car coming. There are more cars today, going away.
Molly turns his hand over and touches where it is lined with dirt. The baby, she says, quiet like it will wake.
He flips his hand and holds hers down so she can’t get away. He heaves a sad sigh and sticks his head even with Molly’s so as to look her in the eye.
Molly breathes heavy as if her stomach’s about to turn.
After a while of watching the two of them, her sister says, You got to try to work the plow again. We can’t eat a plow.
He drops Molly’s hand, runs his own through his hair, says, Another duster coming.
You’re as bad as her.
She takes things out of the cupboards they’re kept in, flour goes in a cup, she ladles water into it.
He watches her as if he’s out of practice looking, then he looks into Molly’s face again, where it is crossed with dirty tears, then he stops. Sawyer said he found his way back to his house today only because his fence was glowing like a light bulb.
You don’t say, her sister says. She has a paste of flour and water going.
Some kind of electricity that comes with the dust. Lit it right up, made the fence come alive.
Molly starts―what does she hear? She wrenches free of him and gets up out of her chair and takes a step for the door of the bedroom.
Dead is dead. She knows it, says the man.
Molly has her back to them, she’s almost to the threshold.
Her sister says, Cold for July, and shifts the cup toward the window where a single cloud sits over by where they once wanted to put in a big new street, or so she says and then goes on: old man Dickens walked all the way over here to give me these feed sacks.
Nice of him, he says.
Molly has slipped out of the room.
Her sister slathers a strip of sack with the flour paste, her hand running it the whole length.
He watches her. I tore up the cover, he said, yesterday. Before the storm. Just before.
The cover? The bed cover? She turns to him in shock at the talk of such violence.
I mean–he puts his hands to his eyes and rubs–I mean land cover. I did plow, and the land pulled back all as nice as a piece of cake. It would’ve grown corn, it was that kind of dirt. I plowed it and it come up and then the wind blew it away like it was waiting for me to get a mouthful of it.
He scratches at his stiff hair. I want the flour sifter if you can spare it.
No, she says.
After Sawyer told me about the electrified fence, he showed me an arrowhead the size of a knife blade. Yea size, he says, his hands wide. He said he took a flour sifter down to his blowout and found it.
Not with a sifter did he find something as big as that. You find it yourself with your eyes.
I ain’t got the knack, he says, looking hard at her.
She wipes the paste off her finger and goes in and brings Molly back into the kitchen, gets her set up with her scrub brush again. Molly scrubs out a new corner, moving the dust and water in dark swirls. Maybe if she were expecting again, her sister says. Maybe that would perk her up.
The man slaps his thigh, and dust from his pants rises into the air. I don’t know how that will happen. She won’t won’t let me set foot in that room.
Her sister applies the wet feed sack strip to the window crack, the one side where the dust blows in worst.
A corner of land, he says. I just wanted to stomp the land back down. Weeds grow anyway. Why not what I try to plant?
Molly starts sobbing.
He looks at her sister, they both step away from Molly’s shaking shoulders as if the kitchen is huge, they step back.
Four months almost to the day, he says, and shivers. She was watching him just fine in that room. I don’t see why she thinks she wasn’t.
Stray dust smacks the window.
Even wrapped him with rags of turpentine, says her sister. He hardly coughed.
Molly coughs, gets up off her knees and, stumbling, runs back into the bedroom again.
Her sister starts pressing the strip into the window wood but the top of the strip is so heavy with paste it bows and peels down. You could help, she says.
He stands at the threshold of the bedroom, then he doesn’t, he is over by the stove, he is beside her. He holds the strip into place while she rubs more paste onto another, more flour they don’t have much of, less water.
His arm sweats not so far from hers, his filthy hand is right next to her face.
The sister bites his thumb.
He doesn’t pull it away. She bites him again, holding the new strip against the dust that is coming, that is coming through no matter what she does.
HERE COMES HIS BROTHER. I can tell by the tread, bear-heavy but light-footed, even more solid than his brother’s, who tiptoes into some game position I don’t know the name of, being ever-so-slightly rugby-educated, but certain he blocks. I’m mostly asleep from the exhaustion of teaching three-year-olds to pinch pots for their mothers all day, preventing them from throwing the pots at each other. The brothers like art like honey-on-pancakes, good if that’s all you’ve got. The younger isn’t home yet, the one whose room I rented while he roamed various continents rugby-free, who, still jetlagged, claimed his room and me the night he deplaned. You can stay, he said, the fey kerchief of vacation still wrapped around his forehead.
His brother is light-footing his way into what is still referred to as my room. It is dark but he can probably make out the blow-up of his brother and I unclothed, a lot of negative space going positive, hung over the bed. I like this brother, the one now hovering, beery-breathed and gentle with his punches when the two of them fight after games, mud-caked and happy having either won or lost, the game played all over in the living room. Furry in the face, arms, legs, and back, a nimbus of soft, the two of them doubled, exhale male.
He touches my face. I play-sleep.
My lover and I take three ferries, hike to a promontory and sleep in bags. A sort of sleep: sausaged with his big body and member, there’s not much turning room other than inside each other. Then there’s dawn and food: we knife open oysters from their beds. He’s lithe across the rocks in his nudeness despite his size and fur, he’s ridiculous running after me, mock caveman. I’m restless when caught, asking for another story about his trip abroad. I was so stoned, he says. All of it was art. I set the timer for the picture of the two of us anyway.
I’ve never seen a rugby match, just the aftermath, the blood and crossed eyes, the storm of beer. They tell me not to. No—they never say. They practice and practice, ramming the house beams, then one day they don’t, they play for days in a tournament, blood and beer morning and night. They can’t hide their lust for the sport, I don’t get it, so they tell me okay, go, and I witness a hugging mass of milling men, grunting, for an hour. Not much with regard to a ball. Both of them are shy afterwards, sleek from the shower, all warrior and new gut. They never disagree about who did what and they never tell me the rules.
Toward their parents they are deferential: Please pass the butter. Their mother, though cordial, could wallop them as well as the father, at least with her love-torn eyes at the least. The brothers arm-wrestle the father, a ritual demanded and met with some regret from the brothers: they now win. But their father is happy, all congratulations, a kind of Eden is breached, they’re men on their own.
I’m inspected and fed. They’ve seen the photo, the art over his bed.
It’s not you is what I try to say to him, then I say it. It’s everything else, my pot-muddy job over and there’s another job so far off I have to live elsewhere. You can visit.
He’s shy about feeling, what does he feel? He strokes his fair beard for an answer. Out of the house means out of his long reach, means it’s a decision he’s tentative over, me being still art-alien, unknowable, me with my will and my wont that he wins with his out-of-character respect. We stand on the porch with my bag, ready for transport.
Fuck respect, he’ll keep the photo.
There’s a roommate too. He drinks late at night and says his door isn’t closed, and he plays rugby too, on the better team, and it’s the season of switching love-fests and rock and roll heavies. I try him for luck but his chest is too hard, I can’t even lay my head on its ridges and sigh. My foolishness makes him drink late and later, but neither of say anything to either brother. You want coffee? he states now, holding his cup out to me. I can’t shake my head. He’s gathered at the door too, as if I’m baggage to be handled. I kiss them all but my lover’s brother is the saddest, he’s the one who cries out Goodbye.
Driving to the game drunk a week later, his brother screams at the traffic, he goads us to scream with him, the road twists and carooms while he hardly holds the wheel. We miss many cars so close we could be two-wheeling. And there’s still the ride home. How to get home where I live in my room so far away without anyone else for a roommate? They won’t visit. I’m here now to show them I’m the same from my place not so convenient, but what game am I playing? You have only one life, my lover says, as if that’s why I should risk it, kissing me so hard in the back seat that I have to close my eyes, that I should.
Terese Svoboda‘s most recent novel, Bohemian Girl, was named one of the ten best Westerns by Booklist. She has stories coming out in The Common and Exterminating Angel, and she won a Guggenheim last year. www.teresesvoboda.com.