Indiana Winter

Indiana Winter

by Susan S. Neville


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253208798
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/28/1994
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

SUSAN NEVILLE is Associate Professor of English at Butler University. Her previous publications include numerous essays and a book entitled The Invention of Flight.

Read an Excerpt

Indiana Winter

By Susan Neville

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1994 Susan Neville
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34004-7



My home is a harbor. It floats on limestone high above the Ohio. Underneath our feet, acids eat away the stone and there are underground rivers and caves and, I swear it, if you were small enough and didn't mind tight black places, darker than any dark you could imagine, and you could crawl through slime and rushing water through tunnels that could end with any step in a cavern so deep you would never stop falling, if you didn't mind knowing that could happen at any moment, if the thought of cave-ins and earthquakes does not concern you because you somehow carry yourself with you gently as a baby, you could be the first person to crawl from Indiana to the brightly lit caverns in Kentucky.

And imagine it, after years of groping, how like heaven it would seem to you, emerging in even the tackiest tent-colored cavern lit with red and blue and green floodlights, seeing a man with a flashlight aiming it at the ceiling — saying doesn't this look like draperies, doesn't that rock look like bacon frying, doesn't that one look like an elf, here in the body of the earth isn't nature a miracle, millions of years ago, making a rock that looks like a toaster?

And still we float so gently on this gloom, in the graying yellow October daylight, in the night lit with candles, in the strong wood houses and barns, in the orchards where the apples fall into our hands and the leaves twist down. We sail on the land as though it's real, our compasses pointing north, as though we know where we are. We eat sugar pears and watch the sugar maples blaze and we suck on sweet candy and smell the damp decaying leaves, and we hold on tight as the boat heaves or the land pitches.


Indiana winter

It's the dead of winter. A landlocked state. Seven cars maneuver between frozen bean fields under gray skies. Seven men drive. Six women hold warm casseroles wrapped in towels.

Each car pushes its own small horn of light, scraping the road and frozen waves of soil until it blends with the others in the dim floodlights of one driveway.

The men and women leave their cars and go to the front door of a farmhouse. The women hug the casseroles. The men stand behind them. Their breath plumes as they wait.

Inside there is movement! Noise! Bright light! A party, hot spiced tea on the stove. Divinity! Take the casseroles in the kitchen, the hostess says, pile the coats on the bed.

The guests move into the large kitchen, into the brick-walled family room, around the wood stove, past the rack of shining guns. Some of the women stay in the kitchen and arrange dishes. The one old man stays with them. He stands at the kitchen counter with a toothed knife and homemade bread. His spotted hands make precise cuts. The rest of the men and some of the women move close to the basketball game on the television.

The women talk about their children. Some of the men talk about money. A million dollars at retirement, a banker says, guaranteed. Honey, a woman yells to her husband, listen to this. Her husband has gone in the kitchen with the host to inspect a leaking pipe. The wealth we could have when we retire, she thinks. Honey, imagine, the security. There's a roar around the flickering television. Damnit, Uwe, the host booms, coming back from the kitchen, you were wide open. If I had been that tall, he says, I'd own the damn state and throw in Kentucky.

We're ready, the hostess calls. Come. Eat.

Glass casseroles, clouds of steam. Yams sweet in orange sauce. Almond cookies. Home-canned beans, red tomatoes, ham. Yeast breads, risen. Sugar pies. Cranberry ice in pink glasses. Paper plates stamped with holly. There is no wine. Taste. Shh. The host. Please, give us grace. The clatter of silver on glass. The flash of fire from knives, candle flames cradled in spoons. Your bread, Reverend, is delicious. Outside the house, the frost line is two feet deep. A rabbit run over by a car, its fur frozen. Inside the house, the air is as thick and warm and yellow as clotted cream. If only we lived here, the guests believe, we would never be unhappy.

She bought the skirt to wear tonight, but the waist button is already tight. She had no idea it would happen so fast. Under the table, her husband's knee presses hers. Still their secret, the child curled like a spoon under the paper napkin. Conceived in the dead of winter, lucky child, the mother hopes. Less danger of miscarriage than those children begun in the season of dogwood and iris, red discing, herbicide and dust. Half the women here seem cloudy with never-born children. There was that spring when three of the women miscarried in April. At the end of nine months, one had said, she felt the child's presence like a phantom limb.

Last spring it had happened to her too. The three months of growth, then the blood, then the waiting, then this new baby who would always feel like two. Later that spring there had been the fragile green of early corn, the good, kind faces of farmers in town, and no real connection between anything.

The candles carve out the slight hollows underneath her husband's cheekbones, the cold glow of early silver in his hair. Husband, do you know how much I love you? Sometimes this world seems so temporary. The whole table laughs at something the host has said. Her husband looks ecstatic. Life is wonderful, she knows he is thinking, marvelous. Husband, I'm frightened. Do you know how much I love you?

The Reverend's hand is dry on the pink water glass. His lips are unsteady. He sees the exhilaration on the face of the young man beside him. The young man turns to him, out of politeness says And for Christmas, Reverend, where will you be? The Reverend says he's not sure yet and the young man looks for a second guiltily at his wife until the Reverend says he has several offers and the husband relaxes and touches his wife's hand.

I hope, she says, this holiday won't be difficult for you, and the Reverend says Oh no, I'm going to try to keep busy. I read a lot, you know.

He starts to tell them about an Eskimo book he's been reading, forgetting the vows he had made as a young man when old retired uncles would talk endlessly at family dinners about birds or former presidents, the vows that he would never bore young people like that. But the pleasure of conversation! Of hearing himself tell someone about the things he's filled his mind with — ice houses and frozen seals and lamps of fat and hot tea. Though it seems to come out odd. For a moment he feels dizzy, like that kayak sickness when the sky and water are such a blinding blue and white that you can't tell up from down.

The host's face and neck are as red as sunburn. He shouts across two women. The game should have started. A father with a son on the team looks up nervously from his plate, a cookie in his hand. You think so? He's been aware of every minute. Yes, it's time. The host reaches for a radio on the table behind him. His wife looks at him, and he doesn't turn it on.

The basketball player's father thinks of the drive back through the country to town. Hundreds of gravestones along the highway leading to the fieldhouse. On Saturday nights, when the traffic gets heavy, the gravestones snap with sharp, reflected light, like rows of cameras aimed right for his son.

The fieldhouse is a sea of green sweatshirts by now. Teenagers cruise the perimeter in two concentric circles, their eyes headlights. Scoreboards flashing, steamed eyeglasses, candy wrappers, old men and babies. Everyone in town is there, and his son! The father looks up to see if anyone's looking at him. He takes another cookie. My God, his son. Legs like a racehorse, just as fast. Only a sophomore, but already some people know. The old Reverend knows, the way he clasps the boy's hand on the Sundays they bring him out of retirement to preach, the way he leans forward in his thin tie and white shirt, his hands on his knees, focusing always on his son as intently as he, the father, focuses. Everyone in town is unemployed or just holding on, waiting for something. And it's his son. Never misses a free throw. Hits from halfway down the court. But still inconsistent, young. Not everyone knows what he'll be: best point guard in the state, in the country. Records that will stand. He has a gift. Everyone is waiting for something, and it's his son they're waiting for.

He holds his own small hand a few inches above the table, looks at the top, then the palm. Where did he come from, his son? A game tonight, and he let his wife talk him into missing it for this party. Already he's regretting that he's come. This party, she said, I look forward all year. A game tonight.

The host jumps up, says To the best cooks in the county. A toast with this piece of fudge. He picks up the radio and heads for the family room. One by one the men follow, scraping chairs, joking. The old Reverend and the young husband stay behind, helping the women clear dishes. The cold presses against the bay window by the table, comes down the chimney in the living room by the tree.

Start another fire, the hostess says.

There is the sound of basketball from the family room, the odor of wood burning in the stove and the fireplace, of smoke from the snuffed-out candles. The women's faces are glowing from the warmth, stomachs round as bubbles.

When the old man runs out of things he can see to do and stands with his hands at his sides, the women send him into the family room and begin comparing childbirth stories. They all know each other's stories but pretend, for the pleasure of telling them again. Labor started in the car, in the bathroom, in bed, at work, in the grocery. Tipped uterus, dilated cervix, placenta praevia, I was so scared. Four children, says one woman, and they were all a breeze; I could do it every day. Twenty hours of labor, says another, I almost died. Forty-eight hours for me, says another.

The young husband helping with the dishes goes into the living room to stand by the fire.

I knew right away when I was pregnant, one woman says, my breasts so sore I couldn't sleep on them. With Todd, another says, I was on the pill for two months and didn't know; when I found out, I worried the whole time.

They outdo one another with horror stories, secondhand, and casually told. A child born without ears, stillborn children wrapped in magazines at the foot of a teenager's bed. A two-pound baby born too early who fits in the palm of her mother's hand.

Slowly they bring up their own worries. A child who doesn't crawl. A boy who cries at night. A baby who hasn't yet turned over — Mine didn't turn until he was ever so old, the hostess says, and now he's gifted. One woman's daughter with leukemia, in remission, her lips so dry in the hospital the mother rubbed them with the strawberry lip gloss she sells door to door, a beautiful child. They'll be well, the women reassure one another, they all will be well. Remember the way a baby's soft hair feels on your cheek, the way you hate to give up nursing.

The woman in the wool skirt wants to tell but is afraid to bring bad luck. Some days, she thinks, it feels like a festival, and some days I'm so frightened. The hostess takes powdered cream from a shelf and pours it into a small pitcher with a silver spoon. She turns to the woman in the wool skirt who has nothing to add to the conversation. Now which grade is it you teach again? The woman in the wool skirt answers, smiles, goes into the living room to find her husband.

The husband and wife stand in the living room by the tree. How do you feel? he asks her. She smiles and looks into the tree: planets and stars brought inside against the winter. She lets her eyes lose focus and leans into her husband, galaxies of lights multiplied and spinning, filling the room, her husband's body the only stable, unchanging thing in a universe too large, the tiny child the size of her thumb. A log cracks and falls through the fireplace grate, an explosion of orange sparks. He puts his arm around her waist. I never realized it, she says, for so long, how people have had the courage to have children.

The temperature drops below zero. The wind blows dark branches of evergreens outside the windows. The women see the branches and move into the family room. The husband and wife hear the wind and move into the family room. The men are laughing at something they can't explain.

The old Reverend sits uncomfortably in the best overstuffed chair. When he sees the couple come in from the living room, he offers it to the woman and moves to a stiff, wooden one.

Please, he thinks. Listen to me. For months my house has been darker than I remember it ever being, the outside gray seeping in and nothing I do will keep it out. The northern winters that last six months, a warm light from seal fat shining through ice and one family living by itself until the air gets close and then running miles through the black cold to another place just like it, all ice and dark, and a new house in hours, the universe shrunk to a bright warm dot. If my house could feel as warm as that, as warm as this place, please listen.

The host opens the wood-burning stove. The room seems smaller. Maybe it will snow, someone says. Not a chance, says the basketball player's father. It only snows in March during basketball play-offs. Right now it's the middle of the gray season, not a chance for snow.

The hostess passes pecans in the shell. The host picks up a book from the coffee table. He shows it to the woman in the wool skirt. The inscription reads "to my friend." It was signed by the author. The cover is bright yellow with orange. We were in Vietnam together, the host says. He shot himself after the book was published. The host says this with bravado, his knees spread wide.

Pecan shells cracking dust in the air. Black windows sweating. We got lost coming here, the woman says to him, ended up by the grain elevators.

They are the host's elevators, round white silos. In the fall farmers bring him their crops. In the spring he sells them poisons.

The woman remembers high school, another party. She didn't know anyone there. She'd gone with a boy she wasn't supposed to even talk to. Most of the boys she knew were college-bound and not worried. This was one of the expendable ones. There was nothing he wanted to do with his life, no job worth waiting for, probably no job at all.

She can't remember how she got there, whose car they went in. It was a frame working-class house close to other houses just like it. They all had porches. There were no adults, or rather, no authority. Someone's older brother was there.

There were a lot of people in the living room. She remembers orange-flowered upholstery, a windowsill covered with chips of putty and paint, the shells of bugs. She doesn't remember faces. The older brother had short hair. He was home on some sort of leave. He laughed hard, his arm crooked around the neck of a short, long-haired girl. It was like he was choking her.

He got out a white screen and set it up against a wall. He had a case of slides. The projector was old and the slides kept sticking. It bothered him when one of the slides was in backward, though no one else could tell. She thinks she remembers him laughing as he showed them but doesn't trust that memory. She turned away from the screen.

And what does that have to do with this room, earthy nut taste, lingering cinnamon and cranberry, hot coffee, her child. The host and that boy pulled out of the county, her future husband sitting safe in an accounting class. Just from watching the news, she says now to the host, even to me, there's something terrifying about helicopters.

We're living in dark times, the host says, and she nods.

Dark times, the host says, and the men agree. Smoke from pipes and one or two cigarettes. The largest all-brick factory in the world, now a quiet old fossil in the center of town. Windows are broken out and covered with paper. Acres of empty parking lots full of trash. There are For Sale signs in every neighborhood, many of them foreclosures. Last fall a stomping death out by the county high school. Of course the banks are holding on, one or two of the furniture stores. Churches are still open, the children at school dreaming about the future. The hostess passes ribbon candy.

She goes to an exercise class twice a week in the basement under the B&G Gym. The class is downtown, near the courthouse, and most of the stores around it are empty, the windows blank. The basement is unfinished: block walls, bare bulb lights, a slanting, cracked concrete floor with rusted drains, years of dust and cobwebs, exposed pipes and supporting beams holding up the gym floor. The children play to the side, by the furnace, on a tumbling mat. It's a dreary place to be but the only other exercise class, which meets in the new, light-filled gym behind the Baptist church, where prayer concerns precede each session and a head of Christ fills one whole wall in a paint-by-numbers style, has no provision for children and meets at an inconvenient time.

The instructor brings a small tape player with tapes of rock music and routines she drives to Indianapolis every other month to learn and they all jump and dance and breathe while overhead men drop hundred-pound weights on an old plank floor and the women imitate their clumsy instructor and watch their children play and pray for grace.


Excerpted from Indiana Winter by Susan Neville. Copyright © 1994 Susan Neville. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


preface, xi,
acknowledgments, xv,
an introduction to indiana winter by dan wakefield, xvii,
stone, 1,
indiana winter, 3,
whirligig!, 25,
nineveh, 40,
jubilee, 57,
hey john, won't you write a song about my sister Stella?, 66,
quake, 89,
patterns, 104,
the tent, 109,
seeds: a meditation on the body, 124,
the garden city church of Christ, 143,
the problem of evil, 155,
in the john dillinger prisoners, 183,
in the suburbs, 212,

What People are Saying About This

Studies in Short Fiction

Neville’s observations on inner and outer worlds deserve a large readership.

Sycamore Review

. . . a book that is firmly and honestly rooted in region, yet finds in its careful and lyrical examination of Indiana’s people and places truths that move the prose pieces away from simple regionalism.

Arts Indiana

If there is darkness in this vision there is also compassion, a lucid and inclusive civility born of remembering how fragile are the houses of our lives.

The New York Times - Christopher Lehman Haupt

Blending fictional and reportorial technique, Ms. Neville unwinds a tapestry of the Indiana seasons . . . in scene after remarkable scene she succeeds in disturbing and undermining one’s calm. . . . moving . . .

Belles Lettres

. . . shrewedly perceptive studies of the poetics of place . . . Neville pierces the heart of this ‘heart of the country,’ unloosing disquieting images and poignant scenes that cling to your memory.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

These stories and essays are filled with great emotion and affection for the people and the land we’ve come to know as the Hoosier state.

Indianapolis Star - Dan Carpenter

A collection of essays, works of fiction and blends of those two genres, Indiana Winter is a poetic and disturbing interpretation of phenomena familiar to most of Neville’s fellow Hoosiers—so familiar, in fact, that we may not really see them. . . . As a plunge into the blackness and glare of the examined life, Indiana Winter is a testament to courage.

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