Cookie begins summer with a dozen old sweaters compressed tightly into Glad bags. Stitch upon stitch, row upon row, she disassembles them into the balls of yarn stored in her green stackable Tupperware bins. Many friends and neighbors from Mitchell county donate their old sweaters, scarves, and other yarn goods to her in the spring, when they are no longer needed, are outgrown, or due for repairs. These are church people mostly. Cookie tells them all she still enjoys the work.
It gets confusing. Is this one a friend or a customer, she sometimes wonders. They return in late fall to sip cider and see her work. Cookie entertains on the porch. She points to strands of their old hats and pullovers in her creations, and listens to memories and stories embedded in the sleeves and collars of her work. She’ll say so-and-so bought sweaters for her twins that matched your old cardigan, or she might joke how she made someone’s stocking cap with yarn from a dead man’s socks, winking then not to tell.
Townspeople can see Cookie is open for business when brightly colored blankets, sweaters, scarves, and other finished items fly like country flags across her porch. Sometimes she hangs her own embroidered flag with the yarn girl on it at the road. People see this and stop in, sometimes four or five cars at a time, to get a glass of free cider and talk this or that. If her husband is on the porch, which is thankfully rare, everything turns nasty politics and sometimes she just wanders off.
Evenings are busy with yarn throughout the year – recycling yarn; sorting angora, nylon, and fleece; counting rows – all the while thinking about her marriage, farming, distant places, gospel music, romance novels and images from magazines.
This all continued into the first warm day of June. A wide-mouthed sun tea jar with a spigot rested on the porch throughout the afternoon. It was dark tea by six and the tea grew darker as evening progressed. Sun widened from a bright white nickel to a molten orange dollar. Potatoes boiled in the four-quart Revere Ware copper-bottom pot, and a small pork roast rested in the oven. Working on the porch from late afternoon to early evening was usual for Cookie and would be the case through July. But this summer, the routine slipped. Discontent had set in, more than usual.
The porch view, like many in Iowa, offered a scattered horizon of grain elevators, Dixie cups she sometimes called them. Oak trees barely altered the flat horizon to the east. Everything seemed rendered plaid, squares of green and brown patchwork beneath a sheet of cloudless blue. Her world was once again breast high with corn, a cycle that would go on forever whether Cookie continued to participate or not.
The kitchen radio was on every day. Farm reports followed gospel music, which followed advertisements and more praise for God. It came to her through the screen door where she sat with a growing ball of yarn on the skirt between her legs. Out in the tractor, her husband Heath would be listening to talk radio, getting all stirred up.
“Lord, please give strength,” she said. She’d said to Heath how they needed a night in town or maybe a weekend up in the Twin Cities. That he needed to show more interest in things, but he’d just turned off as usual. Dinner conversation, when there was any, was always about the bankers, the lawyers, the God Damn politicians, second amendment this and that. Heath didn’t even hunt any longer, rarely shot, and why Cookie would wonder silently, would he care at all if their nephew in the city was a gay?
Always worse, never better, Cookie didn’t know if she could take another dinner conversation on politics – or corn yield, or bills, or anything else for that matter. The vinyl record of their song had long ago gotten scratched and was now finally broken.
Cookie watched the steel gray cab of the tractor turn toward the barn. It was like her chest just locked, like the horizon itself closed in. Heath, a man devoted to his God and farming, a man with rosacea on his nose and cheeks, with intestinal problems and a physician resistant personality, was behind that wheel; stoic as ever, barely approachable any longer, bitter and verbally abusive at times. He’d become more distant in recent months, if distant is the right word, a sign to Cookie of another turn in their marriage, deeper isolation probably.
The final sleeve of a golden fleece sweater Cookie was unraveling had dwindled to little more than a forearm when Heath parked the tractor in the barn, slid the barn door shut, and walked into the pump shed. In there he would take his hat off and dip his balding head into the trough. He would linger for a while doing whatever tired men do after a dozen hours of work, sit on the bench with his elbows on his knees probably, while Cookie got ice in a tall glass from the freezer.
Cookie got his ice and returned to the porch. Heath ambled across the lawn, stopping a couple of times to kick at weeds with the heel of his boot, absorbed in his own thoughts, never once looking up or waving or calling out her name. It was as if she wasn’t even there.
Trough water dripped from his head and shaggy neck. He passed the clothesline and came slowly to the porch steps with his hat in his hands, looking at Cookie only briefly, sporting the face of a defeated man, mute. When they’d still had dogs at least he’d horsed around with them, thrown a stick or something. Cookie imagined one day he’d throw something and tell her to fetch. That’d be the end of it for sure.
Now, Heath hobbled to the porch swing and sat heavily, looking older than he had at lunch.
Cookie handed him the glass of ice. “Tea or soda,” she said. Heath glanced toward the sun tea and nodded. She fetched I and returned to her unraveling. Heath took a short sip and placed the glass on the porch floor. He closed his eyes, rocked for a moment or two, and then was still.
When the sleeve she’d been working on was finally absorbed into the ball of yarn, she gathered her things and moved them into her project room. On the wall in there was a daring picture of a young man with long wavy hair wearing a scarf, but no shirt. He held onto the scarf like a boxer would hold a towel, draped over his muscular neck, his forearms young and strong with visible veins. He was dressed like a wealthy kid loitering about the campus at one of the Ivy League schools in the east. It came from a magazine, probably Cosmo, but she rarely bought Cosmo any more, with all the talk of sex, and interesting ways, and other exciting but not very Christian or even believable articles. Heath didn’t want that trash in the house.
When Cookie put up the picture of her young man, she made up all kinds of stories. She would make a scarf like that one, she liked the pattern, the boy looked like Heath in his younger years – just stories. Truth, she liked the young man’s smile and his body, and it did something for her. The photograph captured her attention.
She was prepared to deal with Heath as she always did, let that lie about the young man’s scarf roll off of her tongue, but he never entered her project room anymore, or if he had, he said nothing. Maybe that was the worst of it, him never even questioning her motives for that photo. He probably knew she had thoughts. That was the grit in it all.
Cookie went to the kitchen. The pork roast was well done. She sliced slabs of meat, mashed butter, salt, a dash of cream and cheese into his potatoes then sprinkled the top with chives grown in the windowsill above her sink. She grabbed a garden salad from her refrigerator and placed it next to Heath’s bacon ranch dressing on the table. He hadn’t come in yet so she called him to supper.
Heath called out he’d be just a minute. She knew that tone, ornery, tired. She might have to go out there when that minute was over and give him a piece of her mind. “What’s the point?” she found herself calling out, words that brought a blush to her face, but there was no reply.
Heath had leaned one shoulder against the railings on the step and dozed off. She sat in the dwindling light of the kitchen alone, picking at her salad, playing with her meat and potatoes then cleaning her plate from the table. As she rinsed a milk glass she looked out to see the last few minutes of light change the barn to silhouette, and she felt odd, as is she were both alone and free for the first time in years. She covered Heath’s plate with a lid, grabbed up her clothes basked, turned off the porch light and stepped onto the cool gress.
Crickets had begun their recital. The air was cooling and light in mercurial hues atop the pole in their drive drew small winged insects. Heath had moved. He sat draped across the porch swing, mouth open, clothes dusty, boots caked with soil. She thought to wake him but stopped. The barn had nearly disappeared into darkness – indistinguishable except for the faint outline of white trim on the door. It wasn’t just the barn that had disappeared. The whole farm had vanished into darkness. Supper was done, her plate rinsed clean, chores complete. It simply felt like time to go, and maybe for good. She thought to just pack and slip away in the truck, leave it at the buss station with a note on the dash.
The project room came to mind. She might miss a few things, but that’s about all that would happen. Heath would wake in the morning, hunt through the house angry and confused, but go to his tractor just the same and begin another day.
Striping clothes from the line, returning the pins to the hanging cloth bag, she recalled how Heath had taken time for dancing in their younger days, how they had sex in the barn on blankets in front of the wide open loft doors, and behind the barn on the bed of a trailer, and everywhere else. He’d been so creative then. No children, though.
There were nights up to the casino. Laughing, hoping people from church wouldn’t see their car in the parking lot, they’d spent money as if they had it. And with growing frustration, Cookie recalled taking the ferry from Wisconsin to Michigan, how the water looked so beautiful and clean. It was the longest time away from the farm in all their years, a whopping three-day jaunt to visit cousins in South Haven, the time of her life.
Light from the kitchen splayed across the porch floor. Cookie’s eyes adjusted to the darkness as intensifying moonlight revealed the shape of the barn again, this time against a sky pricked with stars. As she studied and reflected on it all, thought bursting into a thousand different directions, her being scattered. A good cry was coming she knew, or maybe that mysterious laugh she sometimes got.
Cookie just stood for the longest time, laundry basket waiting, no good reason to do so. She felt the lawn she had mown earlier in the day beneath her feet. She brushed it with her feet for a few moments then raised her thinning arms toward the sky. Cookie threw her head back and sighed deeply. Taking in air as long as she could, she just hung there, arms suspended from the stars, legs wide apart and anchored to the earth, eyes closed, crickets chirping – everywhere darkness, patchwork, and corn.
Should I leave or stay? The thought rose like burning lava. With a deep shudder in her chest, her eyes burst open in panic to see the most remarkable thing. Cookie saw a shooting star, a burning meteor, or whatever they are, trailing a single gold thread across the sky. It traveled for that longest time, finally disappearing near the horizon, its vitality gone, extinguished, but beautiful. And as the star fell so did Cookie’s arms, to her side, and she exhaled.
“Heath,” she called out. But, it was not spoken to Heath exactly. She still faced the barn, the sky, the distant horizon. After a long solitary moment, Cookie picked up her laundry basket and walked down the clothesline. Standing between sheets that moved slowly in the cooling evening breeze, she slipped off her dress and bra and stood quietly. Sheets brushing against her and the moon caressed her shoulders.
Cookie unpinned a fresh clean nightgown and pulled it on. She took her time gathering and folding sheets, a few work shirts, socks, and boxer shorts. When the basket was filled she carried it to the porch and sat again on her chair.
“Heath,” she whispered. “Heath. Wake up. Time for bed.”
Heath slept, his form now comical to her, a white-topped red-faced head flopped to one side, light from the kitchen across one arm and leg. Like a marionette abandoned by God, Heath rested unabashed.
“Heath, wake up,” Cookie said again, this time insistently. “Wake up. I’m not going anywhere, but we can’t live like this forever either.”
Cookie turned on the porch light, picked up Heath’s tea glass, dipped her fingers in it, puled out an ice cube and stroked the side of his cheek. Heath opened his eyes slightly and looked up at her.
“Time to wake up and go to bed,” she said. “You need sleep.”
Heath groaned. Confusion clouded his face.
“Time for bed,” Cookie said. “Tomorrow will be here before we know it. Lots to take care of.”
Heath mumbles something that didn’t matter to her. “Eat your supper and hit the hay,” she said, then unafraid added, “We have a trip to make. Leaving first thing. You’ll need your sleep.”