Everyone calls her Toby. Her real name is Gwendolyn, but few
know that. For sixty-nine years she's been Toby, ever since her
brother John called her Gwendolyn, and she spat peas from
her seat in the high chair and said, "That sumbitch called me
Gwenlum. My name not Gwenlum. My's Toby." The dog's name.
The name stuck, long after the dog died, and now only she and
John remember how she got the name, and John, once a fallingdown
drunk, either can't tell or no one would believe him.
She looks out the upstairs bedroom window of her foursquare
house nestled deep in the Sandhills of Nebraska. The sun knifes
off the roof of the empty machine shed and stabs at her eyes. She
cups her hand over her brow. She'll have to haul water out to the
old windmill, rescue the blue morning glories that have started
their summer climb. Buttoning her shirt, she automatically recites
a childhood rhyme: doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief. She
changes the wording for the last four buttons: banker, rascal, shyster,
thief. Smoothing her wiry gray hair with a glance in the mirror,
she voices her concerns to a god she's not sure she believes in,
"Give Lila a safe flight. And grant Malcolm Lord a miserable day.
It might do the little wretch some good."
Running her palm down the worn stair banister, Toby thinks
she'll see Malcolm Lord in hell before she'll give up this place.
Her parents built this house in, eleven years before she was
born. They ordered it as a kit from Sears, hauled it thirty-five
miles overland by wagon from the nearest train depot. She loves
everything in this house: the creak in the oak floor at the foot of
the landing, the rough maroon bricks of the fireplace, the smell
of dust when the furnace kicks in. The red and blue Oriental rug
chosen by her mother, frayed in spots, the fringe tangled in
lumps to trip over. The leaded glass doors on the half-wall bookcases,
where she and her sister used to hoard bags of candy purchased
on rare trips to town. The kitchen window facing west. A
loud ticking clock. The same corner table her parents used, one
leg propped by a wad of cardboard. The wide bay window, where
she stands now, looking out on a sweeping canopy of sky.
The outside façade, however, tells a different story. The designers
called it the Alhambra, after a Spanish palace that
doubled as a fortress. Cream stucco, black trim, a scalloped
header stretching up from the roof, elaborately carved front columns.
Anywhere else, the house might have seemed elegant, or
at least exotic. Plopped in the Nebraska Sandhills, it looked
ridiculous, a fact missed by Toby's father, who had chosen it because
it was the most ostentatious of all the models available.
As he intended, the Alhambra stood as a monument to Luther
Bolden's success on the Bluestem Ranch. When Toby was a girl,
this house lit up the prairie for miles, people arriving by wagon
and buggy and early autos to sing cowboy songs around a
campfire, drink beer and whiskey on the front porch, dance in
the cleared-out sunroom. Luther paraded her shy mother, spun
Rosemary around in a red taffeta dress he'd ordered from
another catalog, his grip tight on her upper arm. King of the
Toby knows that the neighbors smirked behind her father's
back. They held grudges, every one of them, justified by her
father's legendary ruthlessness. Still, they came to his home and
drank his liquor, because they were lonesome and starved for a
drop of pleasure, and he knew how to throw a fine party. And
most of them, one way or another, owed Luther Bolden.
Even if Toby could scrape together the money, she wouldn't
alter the façade. She keeps the false scallops, the hint of fallen
aristocracy, because the exterior of her house reminds her of
what she does not want to become -- another Luther.
Gertie's already sitting at the kitchen table. She's dressed for
town in one of those outfits old women wear, two-piece polyester,
Wal-Mart or K-Mart specials. Peach pants, a white blousy
top with peach, mint, and blue flowers made of twisted ribbons.
Washable, lightweight, and cheap. Toby refuses such clothes,
making her mind up, as she has throughout life, not to be like
Gertie. Ten years older than Toby, Gertie's her advance warning,
her red light flashing. Instead, Toby wears a plaid cotton shirt,
tails out over the bunchy elastic waistline of her jeans. She does
allow herself elastic. She's not a fool.
Toby moves to get juice out of the refrigerator, bends and retrieves
a pan from the Hoosier cupboard, reaches down the
box of oatmeal. Gertie sits, the Queen of Sheba. More like Luther
every day. Toby knows she's behaving like her mother, passively
resentful. Sooner or later she'll have to do something about it,
but today's not the day. Today they have problems sufficient
She thinks this last, a vestige of some forgotten Bible verse,
and then realizes that Gertie is paging through her Bible. The
King James version, red-letter edition. Worn and dried-out
leather framed by jagged zipper teeth. The zipper hasn't worked
for years, clogged by the tangled tassel of a red crocheted cross
that serves as a bookmark. Gertie roams the pages with her magnifying
glass, head cocked to one side, her center vision robbed
by encroaching macular degeneration. Toby leans over to see
what book Gertie's opened up this morning, preparing herself
for the onslaught that's sure to come. She hopes it's not any of
the letters of the Apostle Paul, that bossy old patrician. Not the
book of Revelation, with its promises of damnation and woe.
She sees that it's the book of Ruth and breathes a little easier.
Well. Two women finding a way to manage, manipulating men
to get what they need, not a bad precedent for what's in store for
all of them. She doubts Gertie will see it that way, but she likes
feeling she has some leverage if Gertie gets going on the shalts
and shalt nots of their lives in this hardscrabble place.
"You want me to come with you?" Gertie asks.
"No, I think I better go alone. She'll be overwhelmed as it is."
Toby pours Gertie's coffee, sets the steaming mug in front of her.
Gertie doesn't look up. "You coddle her too much. Just like
you did Nola Jean."
"Let's don't get started down that road."
"I'm just saying."
Toby says nothing. She rests her hips against the counter,
cradles her coffee cup.
"I s'pose you'll be wanting to give her that front bedroom. I
can move down the hall."
Toby studies Gertie, the roundness of her, the squint of her
eyes through thick glasses. Gertie's out here for the summer because
she hates her little house in town and because Howard's in
the nursing home with Alzheimer's. Her eyes, too, getting worse.
Gertie's daughter lives in Denver and doesn't want her. Her son's
dead, his wife and Gertie not on speaking terms. That leaves only
her grandson, Clay, who Gertie blames for everything that's
gone wrong. And Toby. Toby's the last car on Gertie's train.
"All right," Toby says. She knows Gertie has no intention of
moving out of that front bedroom. Toby had offered her the
downstairs study, a small room with a bath that was added on
after the accident that confined Toby's father to a wheelchair. All
they had to do was swap the desk for a bed. But Gertie wanted
the room that was hers when they were kids in this house.
"Maybe that would be best," Toby adds. She lifts her cup, the coffee
bitter on her tongue.
She watches Gertie turn pink, like a live lobster she once
dropped in a pan of boiling water when she and Walter took a
cruise. She thinks about that lobster and wonders why it amuses
her to see Gertie's discomfort. What kind of monster is she? She
ate that lobster without blinking an eye.
"I might just as well go on back to town. I know when I'm not
wanted." Gertie's high, nasal voice is not her best feature. Walter
used to say it was in a dog's range and beyond human comprehension.
Toby raises an eyebrow and looks at Gertie. She's had some
tough luck, old Gert. Or divine retribution. Either way, Toby's in
no mood to play her games this morning.
"Suit yourself, Gertie. I got to be going, or I'll miss that plane.
I don't want Lila thinking I forgot her."
The long drive out to the main road passes the family cemetery.
Barbed wire fence, white gravestones peeking out from grama
grass. Here and there a yucca with stalks of papery white flowers.
Old boots atop six fence posts, the toes pointing home. For all
the lost souls, Walter used to say. Toby's grandparents and parents
are buried here, alongside Toby's brother who died in infancy.
Toby's husband, Walter, too, his heart having exploded
one spring during a difficult calving. He died surprised, his arm
caught up to the elbow inside a cow. When George, the hired
hand, came to tell Toby, Walter was already laid out on the prairie
grass. The old cow was done for, bleeding and torn, too weak
to rise, her newborn calf standing over her. Toby crouched and
laid her hand on Walter's cheek. Without a word she walked to
George's pickup, took his shotgun down off the gun rack,
fished two shells out of the glove compartment, loaded the gun,
walked over, and shot the cow in the head. George said nothing.
He helped her load Walter in the bed of the pickup. Then he
scooped up the motherless calf and climbed into the truck beside
Walter's body with the animal shivering in his arms. Toby
drove back to the ranch house, weeping finally, and unable to say
whether she was crying for Walter or for the motherless calf.
As Toby passes the small green house in the hollow, she takes
note of the white picket fence, the crown of bluegrass shaping
the front lawn, the cottonwood shimmering in the sun. Her
brother John sits in a chair on the porch, wrapped in a blanket,
a cup in his hand. George is not in sight, probably cursing the
weeds among his tomatoes in the fenced area behind the house.
He could be in the barn swabbing the horses down, keeping the
black flies from ringing their eyes. She hasn't told either John or
George about Lila. They'll have to know, but there's time for that.
Toby waits in the lounge of the Scottsbluff airport. Nobody
much flies to this part of Nebraska, so the airport's small. A coffee
shop off to one side, maybe twenty padded chairs, blue tweed
upholstery on beige plastic frames. Two women's voices rise and
fall like a distant flock of geese. She looks out at the runway, notices
how the glass makes the air wobble. She's driven an hour
and a half to get here, off the ranch, down a gravel road to the
highway, west through four little towns. Her fingers are busy,
rolling and unrolling the hem of her shirt.
She watches three people climb out of the airplane: a middleaged
man carrying a briefcase, an older woman who needs assistance
from the pilot, and Lila. Toby studies the girl. She's wearing
wide-legged jeans with frayed hems, a plaid flannel shirt with the
sleeves cut out at the armpit. Her short dark hair spikes up
in tufts like singed dandelion seed. When she gets close enough,
Toby can see the multiple rings in her ears, one more in her right
eyebrow, a glittering stud in her nose.
The three people enter the hallway where the luggage comes
through. Toby watches through glass. Since the bombing of the
World Trade Center towers, airport security won't allow anyone
but passengers in this area. Lila struggles to lift a heavy suitcase
off a platform. The middle-aged man reaches over her shoulder,
hefts the bag for her. He smiles at her. She glares back. She manages
a smaller bag on her own and walks through the sliding
doors, towing both suitcases behind her.
Toby notices the belly now. Lila's showing, all right, the bottom
two buttons of the shirt left undone. She hides it better than
some, being a tall girl, like all the women in Toby's family. That's
a coincidence, of course. Toby forgets, now and then, that her
daughter is adopted. Some things get passed down -- hand gestures,
a certain inflection of the voice -- but she can't take credit
for her granddaughter's height.
Lila stops in front of her. She looks down at her feet. Toby
won't speak to her until she looks up. She'll have to learn to carry
herself proud through this. People will take their cues from her.
When Lila raises her head, her eyes are clear and blue like the
Sandhills lakes in summer. She has always been a beautiful girl to
Toby: skin golden and burnished, those blue eyes, that dark hair.
The eyes are her dad's, but that hair and skin reveal traces of an
"Mom sent me here because she can't stand to look at me,"
Lila says. She offers this matter-of-factly, and while Toby guesses
it's the truth, she's appalled that the girl knows it. Still, she can't
lie to reassure her.
"Well. Maybe so." She reaches out and hauls her granddaughter
into her arms.
They don't say much during the first forty miles or so. Toby
watches Lila out of the corner of her eye, the girl's face turned
toward the window. She can't guess what Lila might be thinking,
but she figures she's scared.
"Air conditioner's broke," Toby says.
Lila does not turn her head, but offers her hand in a noncommittal
"You feeling all right?"
"How long's it been since you've been out here?" Toby asks.
She means only to pass the time, but Lila bristles. She turns with
a sneer on her face.
"I'm barely old enough to drive, you know. I can't exactly
Toby gnaws at her lip when Lila turns away. Still, she tries
"Four years ago, wasn't it? For your granddad's funeral. Your
mother hasn't been out here since then, either. If I didn't make it
to Minneapolis once in a while, you'd never know you had any
Nebraska relation at all."
"Two Christmases ago," Lila says.
"What's that?" Toby's watching closely, not wanting to miss
the junction off Highway.
Lila turns her face to her. There's accusation in it, even before
she opens her mouth. "That's the last time I saw you. Two Christmases
Toby doesn't answer. She has no defense this girl could understand.
Four years or two years, that's a lifetime to someone her age.
"Your mother off this week? To Paris, I mean?"
"Yeah. I guess. She put me on the plane first." Lila's fingers fiddle
with the dials and buttons on the radio. She hasn't turned it
on, but her fingers are busy there, like a pianist whose hands are
habitually trained. Her left knee bobs up and down to some interior
beat or maybe out of anxiety or teenage adrenaline.
"How's your dad?"
"How would I know?"
Toby's surprised at the bitterness in Lila's voice. She knows
Nola Jean blames Guy for their breakup, too many nights on the
road playing jazz in what Nola Jean calls his Deadbeats Band.
Fed up, she'd forced him to choose between her and his music,
and Guy went with his true love. Somehow, Toby hadn't thought
Lila would take her mother's side.
"Don't you see him?"
"He takes me out to eat once in a while."
Toby nods but can think of nothing to say. She's struck dumb
with the realization of how alone this girl is.
"He'd like me better if I was musical," Lila says.
Toby gears up to deny Lila's statement, then stops. She knows
it's true. She never could relate to Nola Jean, her love for fashion
and what she calls the aesthetic life. Nola Jean flies to Paris regularly
in her job as an airline hostess and sends Toby expensive
blouses and bracelets, trinkets she has no use for. Nola Jean says
she'd come home more often if she could fly here, but she can't
stand all those hours in a car. She could fly to Scottsbluff, cut
the drive down to a couple of hours, but she doesn't trust small
airplanes, even though she's willing now to stick Lila on one.
Toby loves her daughter, but she's too old not to admit that she
might like Nola Jean better if she had taken to ranching the least
They ride a few more miles before Toby speaks again. "Gertie's
staying at the house. You remember Gertie, my sister?"
"Clay's grandma?" Lila turns, her face brightening.
Lila smiles then. A lovely face, when she smiles. "How is Clay?"
Toby thinks hard for a minute. It's too early to tell Lila the
whole story on Clay. "Oh, he's all right. He's farming out on
Gertie's old place."
"George still around?" Lila asks.
Toby smiles, peering ahead down the winding road, watching
it disappear into the hills. She remembers how George used to
take Clay and Lila fishing, the three of them wandering off with
poles slung over their shoulders like slender muskets. "That old
man is rooted to the land. He's got my brother John with him
now. George looks after him."
They've passed Elmyra and the ghostly remains of Perkins,
headed off Highway onto the gravel road that leads up into
the hills. Toby drives fast but keeps a watchful eye for roaming
cattle. Once in a while she spots a red-tailed hawk circling, its
shadow flirting with the thin ribbon of road. On both sides the
land stretches away, speckled with primroses and swathed with
patches of purple larkspur. Here and there a blue lake dots the
surface, formed by rainwater spilling down the side of a hill.
Sometimes the water disappears and resurfaces lower as a wetland
marsh. Or it might keep on going, down, down through
secret passageways to the Ogallala Aquifer, a huge underground
reservoir stretching all the way to Texas. When Toby was a girl
she imagined herself living on a giant ship, cast atop a rolling
ocean. She would lie on her stomach, put her ear to the dry
ground, and listen for the sloshing of phantom waves.
They drive in silence onto the cow path that meanders past
George's house, past the family cemetery. They pull up in front
of the Alhambra. The rose bushes by the front porch need trimming.
The lilacs stray, shabby and overgrown. The lawn has gone
to ruin. In the early morning wild turkeys can be heard nesting
in the cottonwoods, but now the only sound is the buzzing of
insects. That, and the sun, hot and loud, blaring on the roof and
Lila stands looking up at the house, the hills at her back.
"When I was a kid," she says, "I thought this was a palace."
Toby moves up alongside her granddaughter, tries to see the
Alhambra through her eyes. "What do you think now?" she asks.
Lila shrugs. "I'm not a kid anymore."
With that, she picks up her largest suitcase and moves up onto
the porch. Toby, stooping to the smaller bag, watches her struggle
with the screen door. She props it open with her hip, lets it
slam behind her, the sound reverberating across the empty yard.