We move each year in spring, like birds migrating, except we don't go back to a familiar place. We never go back. We pack up who we are and the few things that cling to us, and drive away. We are good at packing. Good at leaving behind.
We traveled three hundred miles today, and five hundred miles yesterday, pulling behind us a small humpbacked metal trailer that wobbles and slows us down. My father would be happy without that trailer, but he needs it to haul his canvases and art supplies, allowing us the rest of the space inside for our things as an afterthought. "Oh, I suppose we need clothes," he will mutter, as we load in our cardboard boxes filled with my mother's encyclopedias, my brother's comics, my sister's stuffed animals, my record player and 45's. "But what's the rest of this stuff? Do we need it?"
An hour off the highway, a half hour past the last poor excuse for a town, my father turns toward the three of us in the back seat. "We're almost there," he says as my mother drives down a two-lane blacktop road exactly like every other two-lane road that has brought us, last year and the years before, to almost there. These roads inevitably lead to dirt lanes which we travel up, or down, or around some river, or through some bog, to where we will live for the next year, places where the occasional house stands out like a bright rainbow on a dark day. Today we turn right, onto a narrow but paved road: Moore. The woods are dense, arching over the road like arms reaching for each other infright.
My teeth are clenched and my jaw hurts. As always, I have convinced myself that this time we will be living in a suburb of some sort, or maybe the tail end of a town, where there are sidewalks, and porches, where people watch neighbors come and go, asking them in for tea and cookies. I once lived in a place with a sidewalk, but I was three and don't remember.
We drive over a hill and down the other side. "This must be it," my father says. "It's a mile since we turned. Yes. There it is. This is it, kids."
I can hardly breathe, because what I notice first is that I don't know which house he means, because there are two houses, directly facing each other from across the road. One is a pretty farmhouse with brown shingles, white trim, a front porch, and a big red barn. There are acres of mowed grass and a cow pasture that spreads out behind the barn and up the hill. I can see lace curtains wave from the open windows. Across the road is a tar-papered house, with no porch, and a half-dozen cars scattered about a mangy yard, the grilles glistening in the late sun like the teeth of rabid dogs. If my father turns right, into that drive, I will not get out of the car. I would rather die.
We turn left, onto the stony driveway of the farmhouse. I want to shout with joy. I am so relieved it's the pretty farmhouse, and so excited we have actual neighbors, but as I get out of the car I look again at the house across the road and shudder, imagining who must live there: an old hermit with warts and a beard down to his knees. Just my luck.
It is the spring of 1954. I will be fifteen in two weeks. For the next year we will live in the farthest outskirts of Mayville, in western New York, so my father can paint. His scenic oil paintings make everything seem lovely, idyllic, beautiful. But actually living in these places is quite different. From up close, the country is a deadly boring place, where people rust like old cars.
Even as we drive up, I imagine us leaving.
These rented houses come fully furnished, a must for my father. The owners have always moved far away and we never see them, but this house belongs to a Mr. and Mrs. Burns who have gone to live at her sister's house right in town, while she stays with a dying aunt in Albuquerque.
They have left their dog here. It barks at us when we get out of the car, staying hidden under a hydrangea bush by the front porch. As my father unlocks the trailer, he yells at us to leave the dog alone, that it needs to get used to us first. I've never had a dog before.
Entering a new house for the first time is like getting on a ride at the amusement park. The anticipation is always better. I imagine secret tunnels through closets, hidden rooms, forgotten diaries, maybe even a canopy bed with gauzy white lace just for me. I should know better by now.
Carrying my pillow, I follow my mother along the flat slate stones that lead from the end of the drive to a side porch, which opens up into a bright and airy kitchen. There is a round pine table with two wooden chairs, floral cushions tied to the seats. The green linoleum floor is covered with a road map of fine lines and gray scuff marks. I figure this is where the Burns ate, not in the dining room, which looks formal and dark. In the back of the kitchen is a big mudroom, with steps leading down into the basement. The refrigerator is in the mudroom, empty and well scrubbed, the door propped open like a hungry mouth. In a year, I will clean it out and leave it just like this. It is my job.
In the living room there is an overstuffed couch, a matching chair, and end tables covered with starched old-lady doilies. No family pictures, just landscapes, which my father will hate because they are dull and uninspired. It doesn't matter what is on the walls though, because within the next hour my mother will take them all down and put up my father's old paintings. The first to go up will be the painting of my mother, completely naked, sitting on a chair with her legs crossed, one arm folded over her head, the other barely covering her crotch. She'll hang it in some prominent spot in the living room, where you can't miss it no matter how hard you try.
My mother modeled nude for art classes and that is how my parents met. When kids ask me if that's my mother on the wall with the big boobs, I lie and say no, it's just someone who looks like her. If she hears me, she'll correct me, and tell the story about how she met my father, with more details than anyone wants to know.
Robert, Megan, and I run upstairs. There are four very small bedrooms, one in the front of the house with a double bed, which we leave for my parents. I call the bedroom that faces the road and the tar-papered house. The room has yellow wallpaper and a picture of a baseball player sitting on a bench, holding a bat. I don't know who he is, but I'll leave it there. I have nothing to put in its place, unless I want to put up some of my father's paintings, which I don't. The bed is neatly made with a plain white quilt. No canopy. I throw my pillow on the bed to claim it. Megan and Robert fight over one of the other bedrooms. They know better than to mess with me.
Going back downstairs I see my mother moving an end table over by the front window. Then she moves a chair up against a wall, and asks me to help her move the couch. In the dining room we slide the heavy table up against the wall so there are only three sides to sit at, and then we cover a small dark mahogany cabinet with a sheet and carry it into the basement. We are making room for my father's stretched canvases, his two easels, his toolbox, cut lumber, rolls of canvas, boxes of paints, brushes, and charcoals, and his crates of linseed oil and turpentine. By nightfall, my mother will have removed the curtains in the living room, so more light will come in. This shifting of furniture always makes me nervous. I worry we are not where we are supposed to be, that some mistake has been made. These people may be out to lunch and come home. I will feel this way for weeks.
We unpack the trailer quickly, competently, just as we packed it, as if those minutes we save will make our stay seem longer, as if by emptying the trailer and stashing it on the far side of the barn, we can pretend we have lived here all along.
The dog, whose name is Kip, comes out from his hiding spot, and with his tail between his legs he inches up to us and sniffs our feet. He is an old beagle with sad eyes and short brittle hair that seems to break off rather than shed, and his ears hang almost to the ground, caked with dried mud. My father says the Burns didn't take Kip with them because they now live next to a busy street, and they are afraid he might get hurt. He is supposed to stay outside.
There is also an enormous black bull, two dozen beef cattle, and a milk cow. The beef cattle stay in the back pasture and Mr. Burns told my father we should just ignore them. The milk cow has another pasture, off to the right of the barn, and the bull has his own pen, about two acres, between the barn and the beef cattle.
Before we moved here, my father assured the Burns he knew about cows, then my mother went to the library. She will be in charge of milking the dairy cow.
Just after my mother leaves to go get some groceries, some people pull up the driveway and get out. My stomach turns. But they wave and address my father by name. The Burns have come to see us get settled. Luckily we are outside when they come, so we don't have to open the door and ask them in.
Mr. Burns is a heavy man who is almost bald; he has more hair coming out his ears than covering his head. Even though he's bald, I don't think he is as old as my father, who's almost sixty and has a full head of thick white hair. Mr. Burns wears overalls and a plaid flannel shirt, and his round basketball belly presses taut against the front of his overalls. Mrs. Burns is very short and just as round as Mr. Burns, but her head is covered with tight brown curls. Her eyes are the green of wet grass. She wears jeans and a plaid shirt, and the clunkiest brown shoes I have ever seen. She glances over at the house, and her face kind of freezes as if she is lost in thought. Mr. Burns touches her on the arm and she turns away. They smile at us, but just quick smiles, with their lips closed.
Mr. Burns shakes our hands, and Mrs. Burns nods and says hello. Mrs. Burns' voice is gravelly, like it was used too much and wants to quit working.
"We won't come in," Mr. Burns says. "We don't want to intrude. Just introduce ourselves and make sure you got in all right. Any trouble finding the place?"
My father says the directions were perfect, and thanks for the letters they sent with maps and notes about the house. The dog has scrambled out from under the hydrangea at the sound of the Burns' car and is beside himself with excitement. He rolls on his back and Mr. Burns squats down to scratch his belly. His tail thumps on the ground, scattering pebbles in its wake.
"Well, you must be worn out," Mr. Burns says, straightening back up. "But there are a few things I think you might want to know." He tells us kids that we are allowed to wander in the milk cow's pasture, which is fifteen acres and has a pond we can swim in, as long as we have some adult supervision. He also tells us to stay away from the bull, which doesn't really need saying. The bull looks as if he has a constant headache and if you glance at him funny he might decide to kill you. He has horns about a foot long that curl into deadly points.
"There're some tools out in the barn," Mr. Burns says to my father. He pulls at his earlobe and nods his head toward the barn. "Let me show you where they are." It's my mother he should be showing. The only thing my father can do is paint.
"Well," Mrs. Burns says, "I was hoping to talk to your mother about the cow." She looks at me, since I'm the oldest, but I don't know what to say. After a minute of uncomfortable silence, she says, "Well, I guess I should show you then."
I nod, and return her tight smile, but I still don't know what I'm supposed to do.
"Well, follow me," she says.
Megan and Robert stick close to me as I follow Mrs. Burns to a gate where the barbed-wire fence meets the back right corner of the barn. Mrs. Burns unclips a hook, and the gate swings open. The cow, white with black splotches, is in the field, right past the muddy area behind the barn. It raises its head and stares at us. "Just don't move too fast," she says. "And watch where you step." The cow freezes in mid chew as we approach. She holds so still you can tell she's alive only by the fact she's standing. As we get a few feet away she stumbles backwards, but Mrs. Burns calls out, "Hey, sweetie, come here, sweetie," and the cow freezes again. Mrs. Burns puts her hand on the cow's wide nose, and it moos. Robert jumps a foot.
"Come on now," Mrs. Burns says. "Let her get used to you. Give her a pat. You've been around cows before, right?" Remembering what my father has told us, we all nod. Megan, the youngest, is the first one to touch the cow, then me. My brother, Robert, hangs back, as if he is waiting his turn, which, if it's up to him, will be never. He's wearing his stupid Davy Crockett hat, as if he is some brave hunter, but he's really just a coward. A fat little chubby coward. His ears stick out under his hat like handles.
The cow feels like the dog, sort of bristly yet soft. She's warm to the touch, and her skin moves against her body as if it's not connected to the muscles in the same way ours is. She smells like nothing I ever smelled before, which is what I presume is the smell of cow, which is hard to separate from the smell of manure, which is everywhere.
"You say your mother knows how to milk a cow?" Mrs. Burns says, sounding concerned, maybe even doubtful we have a mother at all.
We nod. If reading dozens of books can teach you how to milk a cow, then my mother knows how.
"Well then, all right. Let's go back now." Mrs. Burns is so bent over she has no problem looking where she's walking. And now I know why she wears those shoes. Mine are covered with mud, and probably manure. I'd throw them away, but they are my only pair of sneakers. Mrs. Burns shows us how to close the gate. "Always make sure you close it behind you," she says. "I wouldn't want the cow to get out and wander on the road."
Their car is the second car I've seen on this road since we came here. The cow would probably be safe taking a nap right dab in the middle of the road, but I tell her we'll be careful.
"What's her name?" Megan asks in her sweet little voice she does so well.
"Well, I guess she doesn't have a name. She's a cow."
Megan and I look at each other.
Mr. Burns and my father are waiting by the Burns' car. "If you don't mind," Mr. Burns says, "I'd like to come by on Sundays after church, to check on the cattle, set out some fresh hay. I won't be a bother to you at all."
"Not a bother at all," my father says.
"We go to the Methodist church in Westfield, about a forty-minute ride from here," Mrs. Burns offers. "There's also a nice Baptist church right in Mayville and a Presbyterian church way over in Jamestown. We can give you directions."
"Don't worry," my father says. "We'll be fine."
There is silence for a minute while Mr. Burns looks at all of us, tugging again on his ear. "Gosh," he says. "I didn't think to ask if you all are Jewish. With a name like Anderson, I didn't think about you being Jewish." He looks over at Mrs. Burns, as if maybe this is a problem.
"Oh, we're not Jewish," my father says. The Burns look relieved. They even laugh.
"All right then, we'll see you Sunday, about one." They get in their car. Kip moves quickly and hops right over Mrs. Burns and into the front seat. Mr. Burns has to drag him out. Nose almost scraping the ground, tail between his legs, Kip goes back to the hydrangea bush. "See you Sunday," Mr. Burns says, maybe to the dog, maybe to us. They drive off.
If my mother were here she would have told them right out that we're atheists. But my father is like me in just this one way: we don't mention things if we don't have to.
No one's ever asked us if we're Jewish before. I wonder which is worse.