American Gothic by Heidi Island

I quartered freshly peeled potatoes in Louise’s mid-century Nebraska kitchen, purely functional in its farmhouse décor.

Despite a slight breeze from the ceiling fan, the summer humidity clung to my skin.

Louise hunched over the slop bucket, scraped potatoes with a paring knife and stopped intermittently to tip the blade into a brown eye and gouge it out.

Her matted, silver hair curled around the tops of her ears and into crescent moons on her forehead.  As she worked, sweat eased her glasses down the bridge of her nose. In one fluid movement, she popped an eye from the tuber and knife still in hand, pushed her glasses back into place with a damp wrist.

“Louise, how are your cats this year? Any new kittens?”  I asked. 

I gathered the potato quarters together, dropped them into the stockpot and reached for another.

“Yup though only four new ones this year and one of em’ got some kinda brain damage,” she said. 

Louise tossed a cleaned potato in the bucket and took up another to peel. 

She always had feral cats on the homestead.  At sunset, she brought them leftovers from dinner. 

It was her arrangement, her home cooking in exchange for their mice control.

“The little brain damaged one can’t find a straight line even with two walls on either side," Louise said. 

"Her walk is more of a wobble.  When she hears the coyotes, her wobble turns into a hurried spin, flopping over onto her side. God bless her.  Orv calls her ‘Spinner.'"

“Where’s your husband?” I asked.

“Oh he’s outside somewhere on that old Deere,” she said nodding to the fields.

I peered out the window. Sure enough, Orville was perched on the crooked seat of his aging tractor.  A thin, toothless Winston Churchill kind of man, Orv dredged long dirt rows in the soil with the tractor scythe. His bulbous nose protruded from beneath a boxy, engineer’s cap.  He reminded me of an old-fashioned paper doll, the kind whose exposed, modest state was not nudity, but instead some sort of permanent undergarment. Orville’s typical garb was a pair of Osh Kosh overalls. His accessories were dentures that he never wore, a pocket-sized flask of Sunny Brook, Raleigh tobacco, Zigzag papers, a .410 shotgun, and a pack of cards for pitch.

With the potatoes peeled, cut and ready to boil, the kitchen held the kind of rich, loamy fragrance you might taste when sipping a full-bodied, red wine.  Soon we would have my favorite meal, fried chicken and mashed potatoes. 

 “Louise, don’t you think we have enough potatoes?” I asked.  “There are only five of us for dinner, we aren’t cooking for an army.”

“Well Heida,” Louise pushed her glasses up on the bridge of her nose with the inside of her wrist,  “I don’t know how much Tom and your dad can eat.  What we don’t finish tonight I will put in a stew tomorrow.” 

My light cotton dress wet with perspiration, felt like chainmail against my skin.  She has always called me that, “Heida,” her and Orv’s pet name for me since I was a little girl.

“We need more water,” Louise said, she nodded in the direction of two clean, water buckets.

Even though her Nebraska farmhouse was plumbed with running water, for cooking, Louise required well water. I grabbed the buckets from behind the door, pushed the screen aside with my elbow and it slap closed behind me.  In the glaring sunlight of late afternoon, the world felt scorched.  I searched for a shaded path to the well but even the shadows retreated underground. The buckets bounced off my legs and desiccated blades of grass crunched beneath my feet, scattering grasshoppers.

At the well, I pushed the red enameled, handle up and down three times. The pump sputtered and gushed brown water.  I pumped some more. 

The heat of the sun torched my bare shoulders. 

Finally, a clear burst of fresh well water shot into the bucket and so much came up, it even splattered cool water onto my legs.  Blessed relief. 

Once the buckets were full, I returned the handle to the down position and tottered, lopsided with the heavy buckets against my legs, back toward the house. 

At the old white barn, Louise’s feral kittens inside scuttled into the hay. Spinner poked up her palsied head and peered at me with her crossed eyes.

~

At the farmhouse, Orville sat on the porch and one leg dangled off the side of the deck. 

“Hiya Heida” he said.

"Hiya Orv, plowing done?” I asked. 

“Yup, for today. Come sit with me on the porch. But I think you're too big now to sit on my lap,” he smirked.

“I will as soon as Louise relieves me of duty in the kitchen,” I said kissing him on the top of his head.

“Well then I reckon I won’t see you til supper,” he said, only half joking.

Orville pinched long strands of tobacco in between the folds of a rolling paper and massaged the strands back and forth into a long, dense channel.  He ran his tongue along the edge, sealing it closed. 

“Don’t tell Louise,” he said, voice low.  He winked and gave me one of his toothless grins. “She doesn’t like me smoking so close to the house.”

I smiled and nodded, ambling back into the kitchen where Louise had the gas stove alight.  She took one of the water buckets from my grasp and scooped water with a coffee mug over her potatoes.  Once full enough, she hefted the pot up to the stove. 

This is what she did.  Both for cooking and for laundry, Louise collected and heated her water.  Laundry took hours to finish.  She used a wringer and washboard too, the kind you might see auctioned on eBay as “antique.” 

In the mid 1980s, when I was 12, my parents took me to China for a month-long safari. Along the Yangtze River, women rubbed clothes against rocks, scrubbing out the soap in the muddy, languid water. This, even from a child’s perspective, seemed easier than Louise’s approach to laundry. But her Protestant work ethic forced the least efficient and most labor-intensive means of accomplishing a task. The years of working a farm pushed against her frame. Her shoulders were perpetually bowed in a kyphotic hump, so she shuffled from place-to-place, hunched over like an upside down L.   She stopped filling her stockpot and sniffed the air, a disapproving grimace on her face.

“Orville! Don’t you smoke so close to the house!” She warbled.

I tipped the other water bucket over the big pot on the stove, careful to hold the bottom as the water dumped out.  Louise pulled a headless, plucked chicken from the refrigerator, stainless steel, the only contemporary appliance in her house. 

"How are you and Tom gettin' on now you've been married a spell?" she asked.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

She smiled coyly, “You know, Heida,” she waved her hand in the air, “When’re ya gonna make the time to make me a grandma?”  Worn out from the water run, I leaned against the kitchen table. 

“That’s not really a priority right now,” I said. 

Louise set the chicken on the butcher board, and cleaved the legs free.  The knife made a hard thud on the cutting board. 

“You remember we live in two separate states now right?” I asked.  A piece of pasty chicken skin dangled from her left hand, the knife poised mid-cleave.

“Whatta ya mean you live in two states?” she asked, voice strident.  Tom and I commuted on the weekends to see each other until I completed my graduate training.

"I'm in graduate school in Montana," I said.

"I know that," she said.

"And," I said.  "Tom works in Washington."

At that moment, my dad and Tom drove into the driveway in Orv’s borrowed, blue dodge pick-up.  They killed the engine and the old truck burbled dust.  Tom pushed the rusted door open with a slow creak, each of his arms dangled full plastic bags and he held a spool of hose in one of the hands.  Every visit to Orv and Louise's place included a series of trips to the town of Beatrice to pick up hardware supplies. Beatrice was hardly what I would call a town. Though compared to Steinauer, where Orville and Louise lived, it was cosmopolitan.

Beatrice was thirty minutes from the homestead, burgeoning with a population of twelve thousand residents, mostly farmers. 

“So Heida,” Louise said. “How’re ya gonna start a family that way?”   I rolled my lips together, holding back a smile since the truth was this: Tom and I didn't plan to have children.  Not ever.  And I suppose my silence sent that message since Louise didn't say anything more.  Instead shook her head and sighed, resigned.

“Fetch me a couple three cans of peaches from the cellar," she said. 

~

Louise’s canned goods were prized, but a trip to the canning cellar felt like a punishment.  The cellar was spooky, like a place of evil.  Her fermented summer fruits and vegetables were like little princesses locked away in a dungeon.

From the farmhouse, it required ten steps to the storm cellar, one huge heave to throw open the crypt-like wooden door.

The narrow, concrete stairs descended into a darkened abyss, each crumbling stair one step closer to Hades, thirteen in total to get through the stairwell.  At the base of the stairs, a lonely Edison bulb hung in the corner, four more big steps.  The canning closet was to the right. The closet, a small mausoleum, no door, just shelf after shelf of pickled beets, green beans, apricots, plums, and asparagus. Their bloated little produce bodies, suspended like science specimens in jars ensconced in stale dust. 

As I descended the storm cellar stairs, to “fetch” the peaches, my heart throbbed. Decades of dried, preserved earth, filled my nose, the stairwell was still gloomy but now, a thin stream of sunlight eked through a hole in the mortar.  I used to imagine men with disfigured faces, obscured by hockey masks or crumpled fedoras crouching in the darkened corners. Now I envisioned faceless rapists and serial killers, my adult boogey men.  I pulled the dangling cord to the light bulb, electricity sputtered, a dull jaundiced glow onto an electric washer and dryer.  They were new, a gift from my dad.  The cords were still neatly tucked in a cable bow with the folded, instructions archived in the plastic wrapping.  I opened the front door to the dryer and peeked in, twenty jars of peeled tomatoes slowly spun in their juices. 

~

When I returned to the farmhouse, canned goods in hand, Tom, my dad, and Orville all sat on the porch.  The three of them, a bouquet of my favorite men were draped like wilting daisies over their chairs, the lassitude of the evening air heavy on their bodies.

Louise hobbled out of the kitchen with a tray of lemonade, fresh squeezed, and diluted with water, no sugar.  She handed me a glass and took the peaches.  She smiled when she saw I had also commandeered a jar of pickles.

“What?” I said defensively.  “The bread and butters are my fee for braving the storm cellar,” I joked. 

She gave me a little wink, took my hand and gave it a quick kiss, the sweat from her upper lip leaving dew on my knuckles.  She held out her hand and obediently, I plopped the jar in her palm.

“I'll put em' out for everyone to enjoy at dinner,” she smiled.

She crooked her neck to look up at me and whispered, “but you can have my portion.”

I pulled Tom up from his perch on the step and lead him onto the hanging wicker swing, as we gently swung suspended together, I gave him a kiss on his cheek.

“How was Beatrice?” I asked my dad.

My dad propped his legs across the top step of the screened porch, his back leaned against the railing.

“Just like it was forty years ago,” he said, “although they did slurry coat the brick on the five and dime.”

“Slurry coat?” I asked.                        

“Oh, slurry,” he said, sipping his lemonade, “is like stucco that goes on the outside of the brick, about a half inch coat – it restores the brick.  Hey do you remember Brad Schmidt he used to bring you baskets of dried popcorn on the cob.  We made it into popcorn balls?  You remember?” 

Dad was grinning wide.

“We ran into him on our way back to the truck. He and some of Orv’s other ole cronies were playing cards outside Willard’s Cavern.  It took us half an hour to get out of playing a nickel hand of pitch.” 

“Yes, I loved that popcorn!” I said.  I took Tom's hand.  "Have you ever had real popping corn? When it’s still on the cob? You have to actually shuck it off,” I said.

Tom shook his head, yes, flashing his tolerant smile--closed mouth, warm eyes, but indulgent. The way you might smile at a child who enthusiastically points to a dog on the sidewalk and says, “Look! Doggy!”

Tom was raised on an orchard, he knew all about farming ways and if it weren’t for the heat and his $200 jeans, he looked like he belonged here.  He took a long swig of the tart, tart, tart lemonade, the tang pulling his lips inside his cheeks.  Still puckered, Tom tilted his head to look at my hair. He took his index finger and ran it beneath one of my two braids, letting it flop out of his hand, “my country girl,” he said. 

I shifted in the swing, pulling myself up with the chain and tucking my feet under Tom’s left thigh. 

Orville grinned, “Our Heida, she’s our li’l Swiss gal. Always with the pigtails.”

Orville slumped in his oak rocker, struck a wooden match against the side of his shoe and relit the end of his cigarette, now moist with saliva.  Delicate tendrils of the smoke spiraled above his head and drifted into the house through the screen.  I gave Orville a sidelong look and nodded to the smoke. He held his cigarette between his lips and feverishly brushed the smoke from the house.  He gave me a wry smile and hopped his rocker further to the stairs, so the smoke resumed a benign path toward the east side of the house.   I felt like we were sitting in a Grant Woods painting, the four of us now, listening to the trilling vibrato of crickets and croaking bullfrogs. 

Tom pointed to a constellation of holes punched into one of the white porch columns. He glanced over to Orville, “What happened there?” he said. 

Orville put down his lemonade, “God damned opossum” he said.  Orv wiped the back of his wrist over his mouth and lurched out of his rocker, a toothless smirk on his face. He ambled toward the white column.

My dad looked at Tom snickering, “Orv keeps his shotgun handy in the closet just inside the door.”

Orville tossed a finger toward a bramble of tumbleweeds, “Damn bugger kept getting’ inta the henhouse, makin’ off with the eggs,” Orv said, as if the opossum was loping away at that moment.

“That there, happened when the ballsy bastard come from under the porch.”

“So I grabbed the shotgun and pulled a coupl’a blasts,” he said.

“But he was a quick bugger and I missed,” Orville chuckled. “So I kept on him,” his smirk sheepish, “the third one hit this post.”

He ran his worn, calloused fingers over the surface of the shotgun holes, “Whew,” he whistled, “Louise was mad!” I wondered if she was listening to us from the kitchen, shaking her head and giggling. Tom belly laughed mid-sip and snorted lemonade.  He immediately jerked his hand onto his forehead as the lemon juice hit his sinus. 

Orville whispered as he looked in the direction of the kitchen, “I’d rather just dealt with the damned opossum.” He took his cap off, ran the palm of his hand over his scalp, and tucked the cap back over his baldhead.

“He was quick that’s for sure, but he wasn’t lucky,” he said. A devilish smile curled around his gums.

“I got em’ the fourth time.”

~

I always called Louise and Orville “grandma and grandpa," and in spirit, they were.  But in truth, they were my dad’s foster parents.  After he ran away from home during his adolescence, Orville and Louise’s farm was his safe house. This was true for my dad’s foster sister, Elizabeth as well.  “Liz” was the daughter of a local Polish immigrant.  When her dad and mom arrived in Nebraska in the 1950s, her mom died. With two sons and a small daughter, her dad was unable to look after all of the kids so Louise and Orville took her in and later adopted her.  My dad though, just simply refused to leave. The eldest of four kids, the son of the local preacher he was always in trouble. Orville and Louise were part of my grandfather’s parish, and although according to Louise, “Reverend Deditius was a good man,” he punished by the belt. When my dad took his BB gun and shot a bunch of holes in the stained glass windows of my grandfather’s church, I think they decided it wasn’t a bad idea to allow dad to leave. Somehow, Orville and Louise fostered him for all of his adolescence and early teens – no belt, no stick and no shame - their legacy. 

I did not spend all that much time in Nebraska, only a couple visits in the summer. But even for me, the Buman Homestead was a place of peace.  My biological grandparents and my aunts and uncles lived nearby, but the way my dad’s family showed affection was through taunting.  It worked for them, a kind of natural selection, you learned to toughen up or break.  I though, was an only child. I had no siblings to fortify my skin, it was thin and fragile, I bled easily. The Buman House an infirmary, a church, and a repository for the injured, much in the way I imagine that it was for my dad, for Liz and Louise’s kittens.  Spinner with her erratic circles, her eyes crossed, scanning to find mental purchase to something solid, stable, and persistent. That stability was always Louise.   Perhaps this is why I never told Louise that Tom and I didn’t plan to parent.  Fearful of her reprisal and also sensitive to her regret, I never shared that Tom and I didn’t want children.  She perceived her and Orville’s inability to conceive biological children a great disappointment, a flaw in her character. 

“Women have children,” she once said.

Louise died a decade ago, followed by the down-to-heel farm. Orv moved shortly thereafter into an assisted living facility, ironically called, The Homestead. Then he joined his wife in the dirt. 

After graduate school, Tom and I moved to Portland, Oregon, the same city as my Aunt Liz. Orville and Louise’s adopted daughter.  Orphaned now, she for parents and I for the only grandparents I had really known well.  Liz and I became friends, united in familiar memories though generationally disparate. Liz has four rescued cats, one with feline AIDS, adoptees from her weekly volunteer work at a local shelter.  Tom and I are godparents to one nephew and to two of our friend’s children.  Liz and I share Orville and Louise’s photos, their modest heirlooms and their belongings. Orville’s rocker presides in the center of Liz’s living room, reupholstered and guarding her house, sans the shotgun.  Collections of their memories reside on our walls and within our curios, their two female heirs both of us without children, the custodians of keepsakes that will never be bequeathed to daughters. The last purveyors of their legacy—we preside over their emotional endowment.