Iowa Blues, and Greens | Summer Hammond
McCausland, Iowa. Population 300.
Row upon row of green, shimmery stalks, leaves turning liquid in the breeze.
The cornfields are my sea.
Mom says, wistful, “I wanted land, gardens. I wanted my kids to run barefoot, and climb trees.”
She didn’t want a double-wide mobile home trailer, even if it is the yellow of lemon pie.
She wanted an old farmhouse with lace curtains drifting and billowing, parting to reveal glimpses of the sun, a wild orange, melting into our sea.
Every September, we pile into the RV, and drive across the Mississippi, all the way to Bishop Hill, Illinois. Jordbruksdagarna, Agricultural Days, with singing and dancing and sorghum making, woven brooms and needle in the haystack, kettle corn popping, butterflied pork chops sizzling, and homemade stew ladled into Styrofoam cups from a steaming, giant black pot. It’s here, in the 19th century Swedish community, still preserved, that Mom has found her fairy tale.
A two-story farmhouse converted into a shop. As tradition dictates, we ascend the charming creaking stairs to our rooms. The two bedrooms across from each other she’s picked out for Sister and I. Wood floors, braided rugs, girlish homestead beds dressed in hand-stitched Swedish weathervane quilts. We do not see the price tags. We see our house, our rooms. What might have been.
Mom’s face gets soft and dreamy. We all sink down on a bed. It’s the way she squeezes us to her. It’s the way she tells us she loves us. Can we buy it? Can we buy it right now? I want to purchase, whatever the cost, not this house but this moment with her. I could live here forever.
Like any sea, the cornfields have power. They can swallow you whole. You can hide inside them. You can disappear.
All summer, I swim, running the rows in bare feet, wind-milling my arms, the hot, dry earth mounding between my toes. I lay on my back and float, on a long daydream, the Iowa kind, woven of sky and cornsilk.
The way the tassels whisper to me.
They are my seashell.
When I listen to them, I close my eyes, try to hear the whole world.
gravel pit road.
Our lemon pie double-wide sits on a plot of land, down a long dirt lane, off Gravel Pit Road.
Once it was called Quarry Road. Then the town voted to change it to Gravel Pit.
Dad calls to protest the name change.
I am eight years old.
I am not allowed to have crushes. Mom broke the little gold lock on my little diary, red, the color of the Kool-Aid I am also forbidden. She read about my crush on Bryan Baker. The bad boy of 3rd grade. He pulled me under the coats when we lined up for the bus at the end of the day. He smooshed my lips to his. I didn’t write that. I wrote that I liked him. I drew a picture of me and him, stick figures with curly hair, holding hands, surrounded by hearts.
Mom shook the diary in my face, her eyes ablaze, twitching. I don’t remember what she said. The words replaced by the broken lock in my face, jangling, jangling, jangling.
I develop an uncontrollable crush on dump trucks. The wild roar, the truck bed that clang-clangs when empty, bumping over potholes towards the quarry – the gravel pit. The slow creaking rise of the bed to the sky, the sparkle and clatter of rocks raining out. I swoon over their rusty funky feral machine beauty.
Mom buys me dolls. When she was little, she says, her dolls were her salvation.
My dolls lay in the cradle, staring at the ceiling with blank eyes.
I play with a beloved assortment of miniature dump trucks. I devote the day to building enormous towers of dirt. I am focused and passionate. My dream is to one day own a GIANT dump truck. Tonka. It’s too expensive. And yet, what heaping loads of gorgeous dirt and gravel a Tonka truck would carry!
Mom watches me with wonder. “When will you like dollies?” She asks. It’s nearly a plea.
Churning in my gut, a visceral aversion.
At the Kingdom Hall, where we worship as Jehovah’s Witnesses, new mothers pass their babies around like the unleavened bread and wine. They are sacred. We (the women and girls) are all expected to partake.
I never want to hold them, these sniveling and shriveled tyrants – kings and captors. I want to run from them.
The first time I remember fearing my mother.
My sister and I emerge from the mud puddle that collects in our driveway after a hard rain. Iowa pothole puddles, luxurious, coffee colored, gleaming, and irresistible. Sister and I dipped our toes in, then lost control. Now our matching pink terry cloth rompers are saturated, dripping with mud. Sister looks me over. Her face grows stark white. You can see, vividly, her freckles, interspersed with dried mud. A constellation. “We are in trouble,” she promises. “It’s going to be bad.” Her voice grave, her eyes round as she grips my hand.
I don’t believe her. I don’t believe her fear.
Mom’s rage blows our hair back.
Like cartoon figures.
My sister’s freckles float off, then explode, die around us.
A stately two-story cream-colored farmhouse, majestic red barn, great silver silos rising up, shining splendid.
The Schmitz’ are the royal family of Gravel Pit Road. We buy our milk from them.
Mom and I walk, holding hands, swinging our empty milk jugs. The gravel crunch-crunches beneath our shoes.
In an outbuilding with a concrete floor and green peeling paint, we fill our jugs from a big stainless steel tank. A German shepherd sleeps nearby. Her pointy face frightens me. I tip-toe past her, lay my hand flat against the tank. I close my eyes, breathe. The warm belly of a goddess.
Frothy creamy milk gushes from a spigot.
Fredrick Schmitz, Sr., struts in hickory striped overalls, the kind worn by train engineers, steel toe work boots on his feet. A green John Deere ball cap stuck on his white-blond hair. He tucks his thumbs into his suspenders, belly ballooned out. His eyes, snake slits in his florid face. By God, this is my farm. He spits. He curses. He yells. At cows, neighbors, and sometimes school children, who visit the farm on field trips. He drives his green and yellow tractor chariot, taking his sweet time, hogging most of the road. You can see him smirk in that big tractor mirror.
Fredrick Schmitz, Jr. The son. The prince. Owns a collection of dirt bikes, mopeds, ATC’s and ATV’s.
He shoots guns, sets off firecrackers – and Mom’s temper.
Perched atop a combine harvester, he hacks, leans over, spits on Sister and me when we’re digging out the mail from our dented, silver mailbox. We have the biggest mailbox of anyone in the trailer park. That makes us rich.
Sister claws a loogie from her beautiful long curls.
Heather Schmitz is the princess.
Two years ahead of me in school but – if she’d passed Kindergarten – would be three.
Heather has short, shiny platinum hair, cut to her square jaw. Snake eyes under blunt bangs. Football player shoulders.
She shoves me down hard into the rocks under the jungle gym.
She and her friends attack, swarm, grabbing my friendship pins from my sneakers, scattering those precious beads.
I have a lot of friendship pins, but not a lot of friends. Sister made them for me. She selected each bead carefully. My favorite, the pale pink, like the ghosts of the extravagant peonies Mom grows in our front yard.
The beads. The beads.
I sort through the rocks to find them. The beads they didn’t want.
rural route #1.
Our long dirt lane off Gravel Pit Road has a name.
It is the #1 Rural Route in all of America!
I am a child. That’s how I think of it.
A neighborhood of trailers.
Ours is the only double-wide, the only one the color of lemon pie.
Across from us, in the weeds, a broken down blue single sags.
Sometimes, when I ride by on my bike, I hear Lonna Tubbs screaming, throwing dishes. Either at her kids, Earl and Tina. Or her husband, Hans.
Her screams, like talons tearing out her guts.
Hans spends hours sitting in his truck drinking beer, listening to Polka. In the winter, Lonna chases Dad with a $20 bill because he’s got a snow plow, and he plows Rural Route #1. The city plows always forget our lane.
Stern, she shakes the money at him when he refuses, then tucks it in his coat pocket, and skedaddles. I’m grateful to her. She recognizes Dad’s hard work and realizes that, without him, we’d all be stuck inside a fortress of snow.
Still, I can’t dislodge her screams from my head.
Annie Byrd lives on the other side of us. She is a widow. I know this with deep certainty because Mom is the one who, in a blizzard, stuck on her coat, hat, and boots and pushed against the wind and blinding snow to check on Annie Byrd’s husband after Annie called, hysterical.
Mom had to tiptoe into their bedroom.
Mom had to lean in over Annie Byrd’s husband, laying there in bed.
Mom had to be the one to tell her.
Now Annie Byrd mostly keeps to herself. But she’s adopted the trailer kids. We are, she says, her “heart” children. Instead of throwing away her bouquets, composed of peonies, roses, her most lush and luxurious flower gems, she scatters them in the lane, so we can come get them.
I pull my rusty red wagon, bobbing over the potholes, and juddering along the rocks. Sister and I fill the wagon with roses. Around us, the other Rural Route #1 kids mill, earnestly arranging their own artful bouquets. I imagine that Annie Byrd watches us from her window while she washes the dishes, her soul filling full up with warm love.
When we get off the school bus, Annie Byrd calls to us from her doorway, waving us over. She gives us homemade caramel apples to take home. The caramel has oozed and dripped, silky shiny, onto the white parchment paper. She’s garnished each stick with a ribbon, tied in a perfect, tiny bow.
The specialness of this – almost too much to bear.
The Murphys live in a white single. Justin’s building a nice screened-in porch.
When he’s not drunk.
Jackie, Willy, Sister and I wait for the school bus at the end of the lane, huddled like a little herd of cows, stomping our feet, keeping each other warm on cold mornings.
Jackie and I have an on-again-off-again relationship.
When we play, the undercurrent is jaggedy. Even when we’re sneaking RC Cola in the outhouse, giggling. This alliance over forbidden food, and games laced with eroticism, carries an ominous bomb-like tick.
More often than not, we end up in a savage dirt war, wrestling on the ground, balling clumps of each other’s hair in our hands.
Sometimes, Jackie, Willy, Sister, and I all play hide ‘n go seek when the full moon hangs low, tickling the tops of the pine trees.
One time, after an hour searching for Jackie, we can’t find her and give up. We call for her, around and around the yard.
We walk up and down the lane, calling and calling.
She never shows.
Scared, we push open the front door of her trailer, ready to yell for help.
And there she sits.
Chomping a bologna sandwich at the kitchen table!
She grins up at us, devilish, beneath a luxurious milk mustache.
This nearly beats the time we round the corner of the house only to find Jackie, squatting by our back porch, a glistening moon-lit puddle spreading fast beneath her feet.
Sister freaks. Get out! Get out of our yard!
Both Jackie and Willy do this, relieve themselves in the neighbor’s yards.
Those Murphy kids, they’re troubled.
One night, Justin’s driving home drunk.
He spins out-of-control on Gravel Pit Road by the Riley Farm. His car bursts into flames. He’s passed out, dead drunk.
Quiet and shy Marv Riley, corn farmer, runs from his barn, heaves Justin from the fire.
Justin will be in surgery over the next few days. Doctors will not be able to salvage much of his face.
The next morning, getting ready for school, Mom pulls Sister and I aside. The Murphy kids won’t be in school today. Your Dad and I called the principal to let him know what happened. If you hear the kids gossip, shut it down. Both those kids are going through enough.
Her eyes churn.
The kind of righteous indignation, and mercy, that blooms
from knowing that kind of pain.
My best friends are cats.
And a lively troop of imaginary friends: Nancy, Brittany, and Roberta.
Nancy is a romantic sort who sips from honeysuckle blossoms, barefoot beside me in the cool, dewy grass.
Brittany wears glasses, reads with me. She moved away, but comes back to visit when I’m sad and need someone to talk to.
Roberta wears her hair up, sophisticated, and sings opera.
I swing inside my Pig-Pen.
The Pig-Pen is a fenced-in play area. Mom says, when they first put me in, and closed the gate, I ignored the swings, the sandbox, the toys.
All I could see was the closed gate.
I ran to the fence, wailing. I grasped the fence, yanked, tried and tried to pull that fence down, stomping my feet.
I love hearing the story of the Pig-Pen.
Now I’m big and can latch and unlatch the gate. I have a swing, a tire swing, a trapeze, and a teeter-totter. Dad made them all for me in his workshop. He is my own personal magician. All these things he’s made, give me wings.
Late one night, my toes pointed to the stars, I’m swinging. And I’m singing my heart out.
A passionate ballad, an ode to weeping willows.
My favorite tree.
They can be sad and still be beautiful.
After a while, I realize. I have an audience. He’s leaned up against the fence, chewing on a piece of straw, quietly listening.
I stop swinging, my sneakers dragging through the dirt.
I was raking out the barn, he says. I heard you singing.
I’ve never had a best friend.
Together, we swim the Cornfield Sea. We play hide n’ seek on ATC’s and zoom through the cold on his snowmobile, scarves whipping out behind us. We wade the Wapsipinicon, pants rolled up, while he regales me with gorgeous, outlandish stories about the child-eating Witch of the Wapsi.
Finally, with him, my new bike looks the way I want it. Mud-encrusted!
We have mulberry wars and end up purple for days.
He plays kickball with me rowdy, and looks at me gently.
Once, after a full day together, rolling snowballs to build the world’s biggest sparkly snow fort, I trudge back home for supper. My boots get stuck in the mud of the mown down cornfield. I can’t move. I panic. It’s growing darker, and colder. I scream for help. Out of the darkness, Ryan appears, racing toward me. He loops his arms around my waist. He tugs and pulls, and finally, we tumble backwards together, falling in a heap. My feet hang in the air, socks half off.
My boots, still stuck in the mud.
I can’t stop laughing.
I’m going to fall apart, laughing.
Ryan’s my best friend.
His arms around me real.
We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses.
We faithfully attend Kingdom Hall, five meetings a week.
Dad found The Truth while training for the jungles of Vietnam. Before the draft, his bunkmate was studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses. He offered Dad a book published by The Watchtower Society. A blue book called The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. Included in the 1975 Guinness Book of World Records list of highest printings.
In war, men turn to women or religion, Grandma warned Mom when Dad received his draft.
When we want to know if someone is Jehovah’s Witness, we ask, “Are they in The Truth?”
Our congregation meets on the top floor of the brick Farm Bureau building in downtown Dewitt.
We climb the narrow stairs past the darkened offices. Up there, the floor is old and scratchy. We sit in fold out aluminum chairs that squeak when you move a fraction.
The faucet in the bathroom drips. The toilet overflows.
But we have a real piano.
We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses! We speak out in fearlessness! Ours is the God of true prophecy! What He foretells – comes to be!
I sing at the top of my lungs because this Kingdom Melody is my favorite. Mom says, when I was a toddler, I sang it, unabashedly, top of the lungs, in public restrooms while washing my hands.
Mom says she didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud, when the other ladies stared.
Kingdom Hall and door-to-door preaching are the only time I wear dresses.
Once, a house-holder slammed the door in my face so hard, my frilly pink dress flew right up over my head.
I was five.
Preaching, missionary work. This will be my life.
I’d better start liking dresses.
Sister is throwing up again, her skin blotchy, eyes glazed.
She says fragrances bother her. Not flowers. Not cooking.
Perfume and nail polish. She has to come home from school early.
And now she’s coughing up a lung because Brother Michaels has piled on the aftershave.
I sit on Mom’s lap. I sometimes kick her shins with my Mary Jane’s, tickle her nose with my fuzzy hair.
I used to share Dad’s Bible. Now, I have my very own crinkly-paged Bible.
Mom says giving up Christmas was the hardest part.
Growing up, Christmas was the only peaceful time in her house. The one day her Dad stayed sober. Smiled. Remembered her name.
I learn at Kingdom Hall that I may never have to die. Armageddon is right around the corner. Faithful Witnesses will survive into a restored earthly paradise. I’m so glad I can stay on earth with my Cornfield Sea.
Trees, swings, books, stories, and dump trucks!
Hope for a New Earth.
That’s my favorite part of being Jehovah’s Witness.
Along with refusing birthday cake, and sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance.
lemon pie trailer.
Nosebleeds, migraines, infections.
Sister’s been falling over backwards, eyes rolled up. She was admitted to the hospital, checked for a brain tumor.
Mom’s sprouted blisters all over her chin. A beard of blisters! And no period. Menopause, age thirty-five.
Dad’s jaundiced, eye whites turned yellow. He’s plagued by a strange, unrelenting cough.
I got so sick, I missed nine weeks of school. Nine weeks.
I missed multiplication, fractions, and telling time.
I will never catch up. Not in my whole life will I ever catch up.
The culprit is The Monster, seeping out of the particle board.
Your home is supposed to keep you safe, especially when it’s double wide and yellow like a lemon pie.
After watching a news show about formaldehyde in trailer homes, Mom and Dad had the house checked.
The levels of formaldehyde – lethal.
It’s a miracle you all survived! The doctor credits the health foods and vitamins that Mom feeds us instead of Kool-Aid.
Sister and I move out, sleep in the camper at night.
Dad’s filing a lawsuit against the mobile home manufacturers.
I have a rash on my butt. Scabby blisters that break open, freckling my shorts with blood.
There’s nothing in the world now.
Not one thing.
That makes me normal.
great river road.
LeClaire, Iowa. Home of “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Refugees from a poison house.
We leave Rural Route #1.
We leave Gravel Pit Road.
We leave the Cornfield Sea.
And my one best friend – Ryan.
We move into the house on the hill. The one that overlooks the highway.
Below that, the train tracks.
Below that, the Mississippi.
River, train, highway, hill, house.
Two of my cats are hit on the highway. Tigger was such a big, majestic cat. Such a lovely, sweet boy. Big paws, never claws. Licorice flaunted the long, regal nose of a duke.
I’m inconsolable. I hate this place. Hate it, hate it.
Dad makes me another swing. This time with silky rope, striped like a candy cane. He climbs the big Oak, fastens the rope to a limb. He tests the swing first.
He flies, toes out, cowboy hat tipped back, face to the sun.
He looks like a little boy.
My heart grows tender. He believes, always believes, things will get better.
Before you know it.
I’m thirteen, with a period
making stains like little red lakes on the wooden stool in shop class.
When Mom gets mad, she shape shifts. Anger possesses her, turns her into a wolf. She lunges, backs us into a corner, froths at the mouth, snarls, raises her hand.
But she never hits.
I’ve never been hit.
I think her real power is in stopping.
In making you wince and flinch
and fear that one day, she might.
I don’t have an attitude. I don’t talk back. I don’t push her. I always give in.
And I make up with her fast as I can.
Sister is so sick, she drops out of school.
She stays home, cleans the whole house. She irons, vacuums, dusts. On Mondays, when Mom’s grocery shopping, she cooks dinner. She likes to get fancy, experiment. She makes Greek Pastitsio and Russian piroshki’s.
She cleans up after me as I run out to play. She watches me from the window, hate building skyscrapers behind her eyes. Mommy’s little girl.
She lets the curtain fall between us.
Our illness is diagnosed, has a name.
More than one.
Environmental Illness. Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. Sick Building Syndrome.
Crazy. Hypochondriac. Attention-seeking.
Those are the other names some doctors give us – and some of the brothers and sisters at Kingdom Hall.
The school system sends tutors to pregnant girls and druggies.
But they won’t send Sister a tutor.
Dad files another lawsuit, this time, against the school.
He coaches Sister on the testimony she’ll have to give in court. He makes her sit down at the kitchen table and write a letter to Terry Branstad, Governor of Iowa.
Sister cries to me that this is his fight, not hers. He’s forcing the fight on her.
We take trips.
We travel to clinics.
In Lacrosse, Wisconsin, a giant waspy needle injects us with chemicals, right down our arm. One sears like hellfire, blazing down a vein, ripping a scream straight from my chest.
The doctor prescribes us antigens.
Every day before school, backpack on, I stand by the fridge and open my mouth like a baby bird. Mom uses a dropper to deposit antigens under my tongue.
In Dallas, Texas, a cardiologist believes in the Environmentally Ill.
In secret, under the umbrella of his cardiology practice, he treats us.
Those who cannot breathe, cannot leave the house, because the world sickens them.
In the back room, the very back, dark like backstage in a theater, removed from the bright medical degrees on the wall, the treadmill, and the ECG –
the cardiologist administers bee sting venom therapy.
Beforehand, I sign a waiver. I scan it and realize – I might die.
What if there is no hope?
no promise, no everlasting trees and Cornfield Sea
no Paradise on earth?
Afterward, in the car, zooming down a Dallas freeway, I’m seized by a panic attack, so violent it nearly runs us off the road. Dad reaches into the back-seat, grabs my hair, and pulls so hard he nearly yanks me to the front. Calm down or you’ll kill us all!
Antigens don’t work.
Neither does bee venom.
Dad wears a gas mask to Kingdom Hall. Otherwise, the scents make him too sick.
Mom calls Grandma, cries. This illness is taking over our lives, Ma. If it’s not one of us, it’s the other. I spend half my life now taking care of sick people.
Now when I swing, instead of the Cornfield Sea, I point my toes to the river. The Mississippi.
I sing to the barges.
I sing to the riverboats.
I sing to the bald eagles.
i-80 fred schwengel memorial bridge.
I sing to the bridge.
When I swing, I see it, connecting LeClaire, Iowa, to Rapids City, Illinois.
The 18-wheelers crossing all day, like toy trucks, shimmery, a mirage.
The Fred Schwengel Memorial I-80 bridge opened in October 1966.
We cross, a carful of laughing girls, on our way to Geneseo, Illinois. Sidewalk Sales. A full day of shopping.
Mom, Grandma, Sister and I, and Mom’s best friend, Joannie, from Kingdom Hall.
I love Joannie, ardently.
The glorious sunset of her hair. Her round apple cheeks. Her unhinged laughter, coloring her face the same shade as her hair.
Most of all, how she looks at me.
One time, she brushed my hair. She always wanted a daughter.
She looks at me like – she’d give anything.
I never wanted it to end, her hands in my hair.
Joannie has more Bible Studies than anyone else at Kingdom Hall.
People-pleaser, but angry inside. Mom says. Joannie’s the Adult Child of an Alcoholic, like me.
Mom and Joannie laugh so much, gripping their coffee cups, white-knuckled. A wild symphony of laughter. They can’t speak. Tears squeeze from their eyes. From the cracks in their laughter, something terrible might emerge.
We cross the I-80 Bridge. Mom and Joannie, in the front, red-faced, snorting.
I peer over the edge, at the river below, imagine us toppling. Imagine death. The engulfing, the blackness. The erasure of knowing.
Stop. This is how the panic builds.
Dad helped build this bridge. Before he dropped out to marry Mom, he was an engineering student at The University of Iowa.
I do wish he’d made the guard rails higher.
Princeton, Iowa, on the Mississippi.
Grandma stands on the porch, her bright blonde hair swooped into the ponytail of a teenage girl. College boys see her from behind and flirt. It happens constantly.
Now, she leans across the railing and waves to the bargeman. He calls to her across the river through a megaphone. HI, MILLEE!
The whole town must hear.
Bargemen on the mighty Mississippi know my grandmother by name.
She is famous.
Her ex-boyfriend, Erwin, lives across the street. He runs a fish shop from his house. He built Grandma’s house for her. It’s rickety, and the furnace leaks, but it’s livable. She calls it her cabin on the river.
Erwin’s married to another woman now.
Still, he gives Grandma roses, every Valentine’s Day.
At the end of the same road lives her ex-husband.
The Old Man.
He’s famous, too. Everyone knows Willard Mahmens.
Except his granddaughters.
Grandma’s leopard print blouse is always unbuttoned by two or three buttons. She leans in. She plays with the buttons, bats her lashes. Her lipstick is red. Her earrings sparkle up a storm. I’m endlessly intrigued by her.
I love her so much I could die!
She’s worth every moment of even the worst pain of being alive.
We have tea parties. She teaches me how to draw high heels and cleavage.
When Sister and I visit, we walk downtown to fetch Grandma’s mail or buy popsicles from Boll’s General Store.
Sometimes, we see him.
He stumbles from Kernan’s Bar or Bridge’s Tavern.
When we cross paths, he leers at us. Grizzled. Bleary-eyed. Wobbling.
He just flirted with his granddaughters and he has no idea!
Sister laughs. She grabs my arm. I laugh, too.
The two of us, together.
Laugh and laugh and laugh.
The both of us, until broken.
About the Author:
Summer Hammond grew up in rural east Iowa one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where she served as editor on Chautauqua. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Texas Review, Sonora Review, and StoryQuarterly. She is a 2021 Missouri Review Audio Miller Prize Finalist and a 2022 semi-finalist for Nimrod International Journal’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize. Summer and her kindred spirit, Aly, currently live in Wilmington by the sea. Visit her at http://summer-hammond.squarespace.com/