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SHE WAS HOME. SHE HAD LIVED IN CHICAGO FOR quite a few years, but she had always considered Iowa as her home.
Over the years since she last had been here, she'd forgotten how hot and sultry it was in summer and how high the country roads were graded to allow the winter's snow to blow off and into the ditches on each side. She'd forgotten the miles and miles of cornfields, though she was once again amazed at how corn could be knee-high by the Fourth-a farmer's standard for a good crop-and be well over six feet tall in time for the county fair in the middle of August.
Nelda drove slowly through Mason City, remembering marching down Federal Avenue with the Clear Lake High School Band on Band Festival Day. Lute had met her, and they had sneaked away to eat a hamburger before she had to board the school bus back to Clear Lake.
She passed the fairgrounds, where acres of cars and stock trailers were parked, and the grandstand,€where rodeos were held. A Ferris wheel was spinning, and pennants were fluttering. During her other life, she had been there, holding tightly to Lute's arm as they strolled toward the cattle barns. Lute had loved to hang around the stock pens, looking at the champion stock and talking to the boys who were exhibitors.
Lute. How long had it been? Eight years? She could scarcely think of herself living that other life.
"Want to get out, Kelly?" she said, hearing a whine from the back seat. "I'll find a place for you." Turning off at a crossroads, she drove a short distance and stopped. When she opened the car door, the big Irish setter jumped to the ground, shook himself, then went the few steps necessary to reach the tire, where he hoisted his leg.
"My tires will be rotten by the time we get to the farm," Nelda complained as she stroked the dog's head when he returned to her. "But what the heck! You've come all the way from Chicago in this old car. I know you're tired of being cooped up. It won't be long now. You're going to think you've died and gone to heaven when you see all the space you'll have to run in."
She drove the eight miles into Clear Lake singing Elvis Presley songs to Kelly. When Kelly lifted his nose and howled, Nelda said, "You don't like the hound dog song? How about 'Heartbreak Hotel'?" Kelly howled again. "You don't like that one either? What's the matter with you, dog?"
She reached Clear Lake, turned down Eighth Street, and drove past Central School.
"This is where Grandpa went to school, Kelly," she said to the dog. "It's old. Grandpa said it was built back in 1912. The redbrick building at the end of the block is where I went... for only a year. On the steps of that building, Lute asked me to go out for the first time. I was afraid Grandpa wouldn't let me go, but he liked Lute, and he said I could. I just had to be back by ten-thirty."
She turned on Main Street and angle-parked in front of Jensen's, the grocery and meat market where her grandma used to trade. When she had called her grandpa's lawyer, Mr. Hutchinson, and told him that she was coming, he had assured her that the house would be ready for occupancy and that all she had to do was bring her personal belongings and stock the refrigerator.
At the motel the previous night, she had made a list... several lists. At times she thought that she lived by lists. She took the grocery list from her notebook and got out of the car.
"Stay here and watch things, Kelly."
"Arrr-woof," was the answer.
Nelda was greeted by one of the clerks when she entered the store, then little attention was paid to her. The merchants were used to strangers in the summer because the lake, one of only a few in Iowa, attracted tourists. She quickly filled the cart with what she needed to get by for a few days, wheeled it up to the counter, and waited to be checked out.
"Here for the big dance?" the clerk asked.
"What big dance?"
"At the Surf Ballroom. The Everly Brothers will be here tonight."
"I didn't know that."
"Are you from around here?"
"Ah... Chicago. I thought you might have been in before, but I guess not."
"I've been here off and on. I used to come in here with my grandma, Mrs. Eli Hansen."
"Ah, Freda Hansen, she was a dear soul."
"Yes, she was."
"Ah, then, you're... Donald Hansen's daughter. He was a couple of grades ahead of me in school. Ah, let's see, your bill is six dollars and sixteen cents."
While the woman bagged the groceries, Nelda dug in her purse for some bills, wondering if the woman could talk without saying ...ah.
"Careful, the eggs are on top," the woman called, as Nelda pushed at the screen door with her backside and went out to the car.
She drove slowly down Main Street, past the Corner Drug, then the two blocks to the lake. During the WPA days a wall had been erected along the lakeshore at the foot of Main Street. People sat on it now, watching the fishermen on the long dock that stretched out from the boat ramp. Children played in the grassy space in front of it and in the square that was City Park.
Turning back from the lake, she headed out of town, eager to see the old farmhouse that was now hers. It had been a long drive from Chicago, and she was exhausted; but the trip had helped her unwind from her last job of creating a totally new decor for one of Chicago's most expensive nightclubs.
The road she traveled ran parallel to the lake, which had fourteen miles of shoreline. Nelda breathed deeply, savoring the cool fresh air blowing off the water. She turned off at a gravel road.
On the crest of a hill she caught her first glimpse of the white frame, two-story house with the glassed-in front porch and the long-paned windows. It was set back from the road on a grassy knoll bordered on the north by a thick grove of cedars and on the west by a cornfield. East of the house she could see the rambling hedge of lilac bushes and, behind it, the big red barn and the tall silo. The most pleasant times of her childhood had been spent on this farm.
The car bumped over the rutted lane. When she reached the house, she pulled around behind it and parked alongside the back porch as Grandpa used to do. The doors of the barn and the other outbuildings were closed. Wheel tracks were visible where someone had driven in through the barnyard to the corncrib-he man who rented the land, no doubt.
She sat in the car and looked out over the yard. It had been neatly mowed and the bushes trimmed. A piece of heavy rope-all that remained of the swing Grandpa had made for her-hung from the big elm tree. She was glad that her friendly giant had survived the Dutch elm disease that had swept this part of the country. It looked as sturdy as ever, but somehow it didn't seem as huge as it had when, as a child, she'd peered up into its branches.
"We're home, Kelly," she said softly. "No Grandma or Grandpa to greet us. I miss them so." As soon as she opened the door, the dog scrambled out and began dipping his nose to the ground to sniff all the new, exciting smells. Nelda climbed the steps to the door of the back porch, fumbled in her purse, and found the key to the house the lawyer had sent her.
Her eyes misted when she entered the kitchen and looked around the familiar room. Everything was clean, the tile floor shining, the windows sparkling. She smiled when she spotted the big refrigerator/ freezer-one of her grandma's concessions to "modern conveniences," the other being the electric stove. On the kitchen table lay a note that said the boxes she had sent ahead were on the front porch.
Nelda went to the door and called Kelly in before she inspected the rest of the house. Enraptured by the natural scents of grass, trees, and warm earth, the dog took his sweet time responding to her whistle.
"You're a city mutt," she scolded, as he trailed into the house. "You'd better stay inside until I can go out with you. This is a different world, fella. No telling what trouble you'd get into out there. You might even scare up a skunk. Now isn't that a frightening thought?"
His tail between his legs, Kelly looked adequately chastened, sulking like a disappointed child. He definitely was not happy to be called into the house. He pressed his wet nose against the clean windowpane and looked out, something he couldn't do in their highrise apartment in Chicago.
"Look at it this way, dog. We'll be here for at least six months. You'll have plenty of time to explore the countryside. So come on, wag your tail and let me know you're happy that I'll have time to work on my textile designs."
Kelly wagged his tail halfheartedly, then he turned back to gaze with longing at the grove of thick evergreens and underbrush.
The steady hum told Nelda that the refrigerator, next to the range, was running. On the other side of the room was the wood-burning cookstove that Grandma had refused to give up. Memories of freshly baked bread from that old stove assailed her. It kept the kitchen toasty warm in the winter. Nelda sighed. The best and the worst times of her life had been spent right here in this house.
On her first trip to the car she brought in the groceries. She put away the perishables, then lugged in the two large suitcases that almost filled the trunk of her cream-colored 1954 Ford.
By the time she finished the unloading, her back hurt, two of her long, beautiful nails were broken, and her shirt was glued to her body with sweat. She tried to run her fingers through her hair, but it was a mass of damp curls. Grimacing, she remembered the years when she'd wanted it long and straight so that she could have a beautiful, flowing ponytail like that of her friends. Now it was short and artfully styled with every second wave cut so that it no longer resembled a curly metal pad used to scrub pots and pans.
In her old room, she made her bed, using the freshly laundered sheets she found in the chest in the hall. Nelda reminded herself that she must compliment Mr. Hutchinson for the excellent job. Her grandmother's linens, towels, dishes, everything was as neat and clean as if her grandmother had done it herself. Grandpa Hansen's land had been rented, but the house had been closed and left just as it had been when her grandparents lived in it.
The bathroom off the kitchen-converted from a pantry so necessary to the houses of eighty years ago-was roomy, and it was charming. The old-fashioned fixtures included an oak commode with a towel bar across the top. Peeling off her clothes, Nelda filled the claw-footed bathtub with warm water and eased her slender frame down into it.
Kelly nosed open the door and padded into the room. He tilted his head and looked inquiringly at Nelda.
"It's a far cry from the big tub in the apartment, isn't it, fella? But we'll get used to it. All that peace and quiet out there is going to be a blessing for both of us. I hadn't realized how easy it was to lose sight of goals in the hustle and bustle of the city. Here I'll have plenty of time to rest and think and decide what direction my life should take now."
After her formal education, Nelda had been invited to join an interior-decorating firm, where she had quickly established herself in the field of commercial decorating. Her last job had cemented her status among her contemporaries, and had left her more than solvent for a while. She had decided that it was an ideal time to take a leave of absence and pursue an unfulfilled dream of trying her hand at textile design. The perfect retreat was the farmhouse her grandparents had left her.
Only by coming here, she had reasoned, could she make a decision about whether or not to sell the farm. She pushed to the back of her mind the fear that unpleasant memories might stifle her creativity and make her unable to work. Here for a short time, she reminded herself, she had been wonderfully happy and free of the burden of being the daughter of the dreaded Captain Hansen.
During the past eight years her thoughts had often returned to little Rebecca and to Lute. How different her life would have been if her father hadn't torn them apart. As far as she knew, Lute was still in the Navy. Did he ever think of her and the child he had never seen? His mother would have told him that his baby had died. Did he grieve just a little bit for that wee life he had helped to create?
Two years after they buried Rebecca, Nelda's grandmother had died, and her grandpa followed her a year later. Nelda had come back for both funerals. Both times she had seen Mrs. Hanson, but had learned nothing of Lute.
Her father, stationed overseas when his parents had died, had not come back for either funeral. Nelda had neither seen nor heard from him since she and her baby had left Virginia, which was all right with her.
She was doing the best she could to forget the damage her father had done to her life.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Dorothy Garlock