As Nick raps on the metal screen door of Coral's house, the lingering high stink of the neighboring corn mill and the belching semis tumbling down the road swirls around us. This is the smell of my hometown, Cedar Rapids. Its familiarity returns to me like a slap, rudely immediate, as if moving a thousand miles away never happened. "Is she there?" I ask, walking up the steps, and Nick glances back at me, the perspiration already dripping off his coal-colored curls. He shakes his head and turns back to the door, banging on it with a closed fist. He leans to his left and cups his hands around his eyes, peering into the picture window next to the door, his shoulders hunching high like a coat hanger.
"Nothing there." He knuckles the window, and then I follow as he marches down the stairs and onto the gravel driveway, along the length of the house, to the stand-alone garage. We peer into the dusty rectangle windows to find it empty. Nick says, "You told her what time we were coming, right?"
I rub the dirt off my forehead. "Duh," I say. Coral's house is smallish, yellow-shingled, crying out for a paint job, and she hasn't worried about the grass lately; it's growing tall all over the front yard, the blades bleeding white, burnt out on the ends.
"Screw it, let's just leave her a note and go and get a beer at that bar down the road." Nick heads back to the car, even though the key is probably under a big rock or maybe hidden under one of the planters with the dead geraniums on her back deck, which I knew was recently built with the money Coral received from our mother's estate.
I glance at my watch. "One beer, okay?"
"One." He jerks open the Jetta's passenger side door, and then the glove box, where he fishes out a blue Bic pen and a scrap of paper. He unfolds himself from the car, and I dash the note—Meet us up at Johnny's. I stand and chew on the end of the pen, wondering if I should sign it. Nick stands next to me with his hands on his hips. "Jen, come on." He snatches the paper out of my hand.
"Maybe she got caught up at the hospital," I say, as he starts towards the front door. "Don't leave it in the front, she enters through the back door." When he returns I tell him to move the car onto the street. He slams the car door, pulling out of the driveway with a screech, and then slams the door again after parking.
"This is a pain in the ass," he says. The humidity is as bad as we left it in Houston. Rings of sweat curl under the arms of his burgundy t-shirt as we trudge down the street, which is newly laid with fresh oil over the gravel.
I pull a cigarette out of my purse. "You should have stayed home. One less fucking problem for me."
"You think I was going to let you drive all that way by yourself?" Nick replies as we enter the bar, which is a stand-alone building on the corner, made of bleached-white cinder blocks and peeling charcoal tiles. Inside is dark, cavernous, windowless; the only lights supplied by a small TV in the corner of the bar and amber sockets that dot the black rectangle ceiling tiles. I sense Nick relaxing, as if the anticipation of the beer itself is enough to switch his mood. I slide into a booth that lines the wall and watch Nick approach the bar, on the opposite side of the room. He's not a big man, but he acts big, the way he orders the bartender, a young woman with long crow-colored hair and tattoos crawling up her arms, to pour the pitcher of beer, rustling her from her perch at the end of the bar. She shoots Nick a weary look as she takes her time walking to the tap, then pouring our pitcher. When she collects his money, he retrieves the change, not leaving a tip.
There are five other patrons in the bar, a scarecrow of a man in a baseball cap keeping the bartender company at the end of the counter, and four old men playing cards as silently as the dead at a free-standing table by the front door. Nick returns with the frothy golden pitcher in his hands, carrying two plastic cups between his front teeth. He places the pitcher on the table, which slants towards the center of the room. The air in the bar, initially cool in opposition to the outside heat, is now stagnant, and my thighs stick to the faded black vinyl seat. I stub out my smoke in the gold foil ashtray as Nick pours my beer. We don't speak as we start sipping. The beer tastes like honey after our eighteen-hour drive. We both shift so that our backs curve against the wall, our legs stretched out on the booth seats, and focus our attention on the TV, a Cubs game. "That's what I miss about living in Iowa," Nick says. "Cubs on TV in a shithole bar."
I'm more interested in the old men. They appear as variations on a theme, elderly quadruplets. I presume they live in the neighborhood, with their large ruddy Czech faces and barrel-shaped chests. Each has on a long-sleeved cotton shirt, despite the weather, and big-billed baseball caps. Their faces are haggard, drawn, and wrinkly from age. Or maybe from working the cereal plants, slaughterhouses, or corn mills that litter the sides of the Cedar River just a few blocks away. Instantly I think of my grandfather, who, according to my mother, when he wasn't driving a truckload of eggs all over the Midwest, played euchre in the Iowa bars that lined the Mississippi. My own memories of my grandfather are faint and probably made up. He was just an old man, his head plastered with tufts of hair interspersed with quarter-shaped liver spots. He shared a box-shaped hospital room with four other old men. A medicinal smell hovered over them like a death fog. I was five when he died, and I just remember being thankful that I didn't have to go back to that hospital room. After my mother's funeral last year, when Coral and I were going through our mother's things, we found a box of glossy and cracked black-and-whites of her relatives. Our favorite was of Grandpa, sitting at a table with three strangers, all men, in hats and suspenders and shirts without ties. They all faced the camera, no smiles, evidentially caught in a moment of serious card playing. Grandpa held five cards in his hand, and the look on his face conveyed confidence in those waxy rectangles. On the back of the picture was a note in Grandma's writing—Chester at Percy's bar in Clinton. It's a euchre hand, Coral and I said in tandem, running our fingers over the glimmering face, over the faded penciled chicken scratches. We had a horrific fight about the picture that day, accusations of my perfidy on her part, and her medical negligence towards our mother on mine, but somehow I ended up with the picture, and it still sits, tenderly framed, in my living room back in Houston.
Nick drains half his beer in one gulp. "Slow down, cowboy," I say, setting my own cup back on the table.
He refills his glass. "Damn, nothing like watery Iowa beer to get you going," he says as he takes off for the bathroom, which is down a thin hallway in the back of the bar.
The door opens, providing a blinding rectangle of light, which disappears as the door squeaks shut. It's Coral, my sister. As usual, her hair is shorn short and she wears no makeup. She looks tired. She spots me and hunkers across the room, and slides in the booth. This is the first I have set eyes on my sister in six months, and it's shocking how much weight she has gained. She's always been big, but now, she's closer to two-fifty and that's a lot for a woman barely 5'3". We look alike; everyone always told us that. You could tell we were sisters, with cobalt eyes, hair that needs help from whatever means necessary, and a permanently curt impression plastered on our faces. Otherwise, our bodies are so completely different, as if our parents created us with cookie cutters, me the little, skinny gingerbread man, Coral the fat, rounded one. I can't stop looking at her bulk. She looks at the pitcher. "You guys been drinking the whole trip?"
I shake my head, "We're not that stupid." She raises her eyebrows. "You know, a little weed . . ."
"You talk to Dad yet?" She lays her hands on the table, interweaving her fingers, her fingernails red and raw, painfully chewed beyond the tips.
"We just got here."
"I'll call him," I say, looking towards the bathroom.
"We have to be at the church at seven."
"I know." I sound like I'm whining. I sip more of my beer as the bartender approaches the table. She asks Coral if she wants the usual. Coral nods. I finger the condensation that's formed on the plastic cup, then sip. The beer is warm, and I pick up the pitcher and fill the cup to the top.
Nick returns to the table and slips next to me. "Hey, Coral."
"Hey, Nick." The bartender returns with Coral's drink, something clear, in a thick, proper glass. "Thanks, Sue," Coral says as the bartender glides away. She removes the thin red straw and drinks, a good long gulp. "Gotta have some strength for tonight." Coral shakes her glass. The ice rattles about, and she takes another drink, draining the glass. We all laugh. "I talked to Dad this morning and he's pretty excited."
"He's looking forward to you coming," says Coral.
I avoid her glance as I turn my neck to the old guys playing cards. "He won't even notice we're there."
"That's not true," Coral says, not with much confidence. I drink, keeping my eyes on them while Coral and Nick talk about our trip up from Houston. I'm starting to get that buzz, my temples and toes tingling. The man with his back to me is dealing, two cards to the man on his right, three across, two to the left, three to himseld, his manner fluid as a swimming dolphin, then repeating the deal, reversing the number of cards to each player. He gently sets the remainder of the cards face down, and flips over the top one, and without hesitation, the man to his right knocks his knuckle one time on the table, as does the next man. The third man says, "Trump." And they begin to play again, cards flicked on the black-flecked table-top.
Nick pours the rest of the beer into our cups, adeptly filling them so that they reach the lips without overflowing. We all murmur how impressed we are with his ability, but he has to sip from his cup without picking it up, to prevent it from spilling. I do the same as he stands and grabs the empty pitcher. "You want another drink?" he asks Coral. She nods. "What are you having?"
"Sue'll know," Coral tells him, and he walks over to the bar.
One of the euchre players stands to leave, the dealer from earlier. He's stumpy like a tree trunk, with fading jeans that are held up with washed-out brown suspenders. His whitish hair curls under the back of his trucker hat. The others murmur their contempt, but he just laughs and walks out the door, the sunlight providing a temporary spotlight on the three that are left. The man to the left of the dealer swivels in his chair and calls out to the bartender, "Sue, you think your old man will come to play cards today?" She's filling Nick's pitcher, and she doesn't remove her eyes from the spigot as she shakes her head. "No?" His voice crackles with old age. "What about you, Harvard?" he calls out. I'm not sure if he means Nick or the young man at the end of the bar.
Nick turns his head and studies the four as if he just realized they exist. The thin man at the end of the bar points to the TV and calls out, "Not during a shutout."
Nick says, "What are you playing?"
The men eye Nick. "Euchre," says the one to the left of the empty dealer chair.
"I haven't played for years, but I'll give it a shot." Nick brings the pitcher back to the table. "It's okay, right?" I glance at Coral, but she's got her eye on the baseball game. I shrug as he grabs his cup and sits at the table.
"You come here a lot?" I ask, after the bartender delivers Coral's drink.
"Why?" she asks, and I indicate towards her glass. "I guess so." She removes a cigarette out of my pack, and leans over the table to seize my lighter. She lights the cigarette before saying, "I know the bartender. I guess I should say I know her mother. We work together at the hospital."
"Yeah, the guy that owns the place, he had a pretty massive heart attack earlier this year and the daughter," she tips her head towards the bartender, "she moved back from Kansas City to help take care of the bar, and of her dad." Coral blows out smoke. "She's got a husband back there, but she's here, taking care of things for her family."
The bartender sits on a stool at the far end of the bar, next to Harvard, smoking a cigarette and watching the game. She'd be a lot prettier, I whisper to Coral, without the dyed black hair and the tattoos.
"She's a good person." Coral says. "She's become a good friend to me."
The beer and cigarettes are going to my head faster than I want them to. Nick and I drove straight through from Houston to get here in time for Dad's wedding tonight, starting out after I got off work yesterday. Nick took the first shift as I smoked some weed and then tried to sleep. I probably got about three fitful hours total, my head bobbing back on the headrest through the arid fields of Texas and Oklahoma. He drank copious amounts of coffee overnight, stopping every two hours to pee and refill his coffee. When it was time for him to sleep, after we stopped in Joplin for breakfast, he smoked his pot and rolled right over, his snoring providing a soundtrack all through Missouri and Iowa.
"Dad's excited about seeing you." She lifts her drink, taking a sip.
I laugh, but it comes out as more of a snort. "If I weren't so tired I'd probably just go back home right now."
"I guess if you lived here you'd get it. He's happy, at least."
I snort again, but I don't answer.
Coral sighs. "I can't believe you're still smoking pot."
"Fuck you, Coral."
She smiles like the Cheshire cat. Her cell phone rings and she digs it out of her purse. "It's Dad," she says, looking at the ID window. She stares at me as she answers. "Hi," she answers, her eyes boring into mine. "Jen? Has she called you?" In the pause, I shake my head, and she says, "Nope, not a thing." I light another cigarette and turn to the card playing. "Okay, well, I'm sure they'll be here by seven. You know how driving can be. Yeah, me too. Bye." Coral clicks off the phone and says, "You need to call him."
I shrug my shoulders. "I know."
"This is really important to him."
"I know." I tear my legs from the sticky plastic booth, bringing my knees up, and sip another bit of beer. I rest my chin on my knees. There's a burst from the table, Nick and the others laughing.
"Call him." She thrusts the phone towards me.
"I'm not calling from your phone." I stab my cigarette into the ashtray. "I'll call from mine." I slide out of the booth and tug at the hem of my shorts, lean over and grab a smoke and the lighter. Nick catches my eye and I say, "I'll be right back."
Outside the air is more humid, and I feel as though I am walking through a wall of sluggish air. The afternoon sky has turned dense and white, and thunderheads are bundling in the eastern sky. I light the cigarette before dialing Dad's number.
Lydia answers, something I did not expect. "Oh, hi." I say stupidly. As he told me on the phone more than once this spring, Lydia was beautiful, Lydia was thin, she knew how to have fun. Everything Mom wasn't, right Dad? I wanted to ask. Lydia is the mother of one of my high school classmates—someone I don't remember, just a guy that played football and basketball, I gathered, after checking out my yearbook. That's all I can glean from the book itself, as if he was put in there at a later date without me knowing. I've only met Lydia once, immediately following my mother's death she had stopped by the house with a platter of chicken salad croissant sandwiches. She had this ambulatory aura about her and I remember thinking that she would be annoying to live with, that constant need to move around. Nick says I probably picture her with red devil ears and a forked tail.
"Hi Jen!" Her voice has the smoky edge that probably comes to any woman who has outlived two husbands and smoked all the way through it. "Sweetheart, things are crazed around here, your father, he just took off to get the tuxedos. I can't believe he waited until the last second!" There's a clattering noise in the background, and she laughs. I have a passing thought that she's drunk. "So are you in town?"
I bite the knuckle of my thumb and say through the skin, "No. We're stuck." I walk to the corner of the building, scanning the pockmarked and dented parking lot. It was occupied by a smattering of cars, most early '90s American types, Buicks and Oldsmobiles.
"The car broke down." I lied. "Here. We're just south of Des Moines."
Honestly, what does my father see in her? "Broke down. We stopped for gas and now the car won't start." I lean against the corner of the building. "So will you tell Dad that we won't be there?"
"Why won't it start?"
"I don't know Lydia. We're waiting for a tow. I'm sure that it will take hours—"
"—isn't there anyway you could, oh, I don't know, rent a car?" She speaks in a rush. I can picture her in the kitchen of my dad's overpriced condo on the other end of Cedar Rapids, tanned and exquisitely dressed in some appropriate white suit for an older bride.
"We can't really leave it—"
"—because your father was really, really counting on you coming, and Nick too, and, well, Adam wanted to see you after all these years and this is really, really disappointing."
"Yeah, sorry." I say this a little too lightly, like I accidentally spilled a glass of water in her kitchen, and so I add, "Maybe we can try to get a rental and come up tomorrow."
"Well, your dad and I are flying out for Cancun first thing in the morning." She sighs into the receiver.
I knew this. "Oh yeah, right. Well, gee, you know, Nick has to be back at work on Monday so we're hoping we can get the car fixed and then get right back to Houston." A couple of old men stroll past, both like clones of the men inside, round waisted jeans and pale shirts. When they open the bar door, the sound of jukebox music floats through for a flash of time, and I recognize the song, something by Hank Williams.
Lydia breathes into the phone. "Listen, let me call you right back, okay? I think your dad and I can put off the trip. What's one day? I'm sure it's possible, you know, I'll call my travel agent right now and we'll get it changed."
I shake my head as if she is there to see me. "No, Lydia, no, you've been planning this trip for months and I—"
"It's fine. It's fine. I know how much he wants to see you and this way we can spend all day tomorrow with you. Let me call you right back." She ends the call. I hold the phone up to my ear for a moment, then turn it off. Towards the back of the building is a festering, fly-ridden brown dumpster. I walk over next to it, take the phone, and throw it as hard as I can against the concrete wall. The phone breaks apart, little black pieces fly in all directions. I pick up the bigger chunks, and toss them into the dumpster, which smells as wretched as the stink of Cedar Rapids. Using my shoe, I kick the remaining crumbs of the phone under the dumpster.
The air in the bar is as stagnant as the outdoors, the stink of cigarettes and old beer instantly overwhelming, the noise from the jukebox too loud. I walk over to the booth and slide in. "Well, I fucked up." I said. I tell Coral about the phone call, and she laughs, pouring beer into my cup and then her glass. "It's not funny," I retort, but then I start laughing too.
"Jen, you want to get us a pitcher?" Nick calls from his table. "Old Style?" he asks around. The man to his left nods, an oval of sweat leaking through the back of his blue shirt.
"Now what are you going to do?" Coral asks.
"I'm going to get them a pitcher."
I shrug. The bartender saunters over from her stool as I approach, and I hand her the pitcher, watching as she fills it with the foamy beer, not seeming to worry as the foam bubbles out of the tap onto the counter. She has a tattoo on her upper arm that looks like a claddagh, the hands grasping a crowned red heart, which is dripping blood down to her elbow. "You guys just want to run a tab?" she asks, her voice is childlike in timber, and it's more euphonious than I expected, with her black-lined eyes and purple-streaked hair. Close up she looks like a Madame Alexander doll, her eyelashes impossibly long and her lips a perfect tulip.
I nod. "That's really beautiful," I say and nod towards the tattoo.
She peers at me, and I feel suddenly uncool, really uncool in my vivid pink Old Navy t-shirt and cutoffs. I sit back on the stool, which is cracked, the sharp edges digging into my thighs. "I've always been afraid to get one."
She doesn't really look at me as she replies, just kind of peers past me, and says, "Huh? Why?"
I try to laugh. "I can't imagine what it'll look like when I'm sixty."
"That's the point." The girl is shaped like a pencil, and she's wearing a man's sleeveless undershirt and long, threadbare jeans that clinch around her hips. Her face flickers alive, her eyebrows now jumping as she nods towards her claddagh tattoo. "That's what people don't get. Like, how permanent it is."
"Don't you worry about that, you know, what it will look like when you're sixty?"
She eyes me, the light dimmed. "I don't worry about tomorrow." She picks up a rag from the sink behind her and wipes down the area where she had poured my pitcher.
I take the pitcher over to Nick and set it on the center of the table, and all four mutter with dissent. "We're playing cards here," Nick says. He picks up the pitcher and fills his new friends' glasses, and thrusts the pitcher back to me.
"Jesus, Nick, it's just a game," I say.
"It is not just a game." Nick fingers his cards. "This is important." They laugh as I return to the table, my cheeks burning.
Coral's head is on the table, she lifts it as I slide into the booth. I light another smoke. The baseball game has ended, the Cubs beating the Pirates 5-2. The bartender picks up a remote and flicks around, finding another baseball game, this time the Braves versus the Cardinals. Coral and I stare at the TV. It's after five and customers begin staggering into the bar: men in suits and women in short skirts and blazers, sod busters with dirty boots, and college-aged kids. Behind the bar, two hulking men replace the bartender, and she and Harvard wave goodbye to Coral and me as they stroll out the front door of the bar.
The card game ends and Nick returns. His mood has vaporized into something I don't often see with him, happiness maybe. We've been together for ten years and I still can't get a grip on all his moods. They flicker about, like the moths that swarm around a front porch light. I once read where moths actually have a sense of particular order, but it sure doesn't look like that, does it? Seems to me it's random and wanton, just like Nick's moodiness. "Who won?" I ask.
He picks up our pitcher and fills his cup. "Doesn't matter." He drinks, eyeing me. "I thought that it wasn't just a game." The first notes of an Aerosmith song ring out across the bar. Nick cups his hand around his ear as I repeat what I said.
"It's not," he retorts, his voice straining over the noise.
"Then why doesn't it matter?" I say into his ear. "I thought it was important."
He smirks, and says, "It's a game. It's a game in a bar. Who cares who wins? You always get to play again." I think about my grandfather. As the years had passed since he died, the stories my mother had told became increasingly mythical. He could deal you a fistful of hearts just for the asking, he'd take a hand with a left bower and a king, he won tournaments well into his stay at the Vet hospital in Iowa City, pilfering the interns for nickels a game. But he always, always won. In every story she told.
I attempt to light a cigarette, but my hand is shaking. Nick obtains the lighter from me and lights it, and I lean over, inhaling as the flame flickers at the end of the cigarette. "I don't know what to do."
"About the wedding." I take a drag, and exhale deeply. "I don't want to go."
"We needed to drive a thousand miles for you to figure that out?" Nick asks. Coral's eyelids flicker. I watch Nick thumb my lighter, turning the wheel of the contraption that leads to the spark of the flame, but not igniting it, not letting it get to that point.
"You're right," I say. "We're not going." I smash the cigarette into the crowded tray.
Nick licks his lips, reaches to my cup, and drinks the rest of that one, too. "Fine by me."
"We should probably try to sober her up."
Coral's eyes open, but her face is puffy and wet from the drinking. "I'm not drunk."
Nick and I laugh. Coral rubs her eyes with her pink chubby hands. Her forearms bulge as if she has rubber bands wrapped around the wrists. The bar light shines on the top of her curly head, and I swear I see a faint line of balding. As if she knows I am looking at her head, she runs her fingers through her hair. I realize that I am mirroring her actions. I return my hand back down on the table, and she does the same.
We decide to take a walk before we deliver Coral home for her to get ready for Dad's wedding, for us to get some sleep before taking off. Outside the bar the evening has begun to win the race of the day, and the wind blows so that the scent of the oats cooking from the cereal plant downtown swirls up the river. Nick states that he likes the smell. I do too; occasionally the smell in Cedar Rapids is pleasant, like cooked cocoa. We trudge the grassy dune behind the bar in order to make our way to the thick pebble trail next to the Cedar River, which is lined with bike tracks and footprints. We don't speak as we walk, three side by side. The sun hovers over the river, dense in its complete August heat. Mosquitoes zigzag about our heads. I notice a small clearing in the bush that leads from the track to the river, and I part from the two as I walk down the rocky path to an open patch. The others follow, and watch as I pick flat pebbles out of the dirt-encrusted ground and try to skip them over the river, which flows smooth and slow. Nick sits back on a large craggy rock to watch, swatting at the mosquitoes that live in force by the river, but Coral joins me, leaning at her waist and digging with her fingertips for the flat, smooth rocks that work for the skipping. We stand and flip our wrists, and after a few attempts Coral is able to skip her rocks, tossing them out into the river so that they jump six, seven times, the rocks creating perfectly circular ripples, while mine still land with a ker-plunk.
"Have you done this lately or something?" I ask, but she just smirks and continues to dig, and then toss her rocks. I walk up to the muddy edge of the river, kick off my sandals, and step into the mud, which envelopes my toes in its cool soft thickness. Coral edges next to me, grabs my hand and we stand at the side of the river, watching the sun dip below the horizon and the water bugs dance about the rippling surface. Coral squeezes my hand and I lean over and put my head on her shoulder. The muddy river water slaps our feet, and as we will the sticky mud to glue them to the floor of the Cedar River, the aroma of the cooked oats flows past us, sweet and enticing, blotting out the stink of the rotting river.