The year I turned seventeen, the cicada chorus was deafening, as if they were impatient for the real beginning of summer and didn’t realize they were it. All I cared about was that my sister Ida had come back to us. She was supposed to be in Tennessee, where she lived with her boyfriend and sometimes fiancé. My parents and I still had not met him. They were always arguing or on the verge of an argument, but Ida said that was the part of the relationship she liked. We hadn’t talked to her since April, the time she’d called to see when my graduation would be and to complain. Oh, the heat here, it’s already awful, she’d moaned, as if Memphis heat was so different from ours.
The pool wouldn’t open for three weeks, and my legs were already sunburned. Our town was filled with the same people I’d seen every year of my life, and I wanted nothing to do with them. I ate peppers and thought about graduating—hot peppers, red and green, and shot through with heat that left the tips of my fingers sore and my lips burning for the rest of the day. I waited for the pool and I waited for the carnival, because, like other towns with nothing in them, ours invented festivals to encourage pride and mark off time.
The day Ida came home, I sat between the park and the pond under the tallest oak, scratching my back on its trunk, and watched the carnival go up. Strange men and women – the company was based out of Kansas and that felt far away to me – unloaded trucks, making piles of lights and tents, parts that would become a Ferris wheel called the Sky Wheel. They wore short-sleeved shirts and work gloves, and I thought of all the sweat caught between skin and cloth, how it would pool around cuticles and travel toward the open part at the wrist, evaporating some place near the elbows.
There were kids too, some of them helping and some playing close to the pond. It was nearing the most unbearable part of the day, when a breeze only made things worse, it was so hot. In the summer the pond was better if you got there early; it was almost sweet-smelling then, or at least easy to imagine it that way with the sun not yet on it. Later in the day there was the scent of wet rock and fish scales, fermenting soil and cattails. That smell made me feel old, like I had lived in the town forever, like I was already part of the pond.
I walked home when the sun scraped the trees. My mother sat on the couch with her legs resting on the coffee table, organizing her binder of postage stamps. She was the closest to a collector our town had. She didn’t care about mint condition or first-runs, but she liked to pick particular stamps for particular letters: John Wayne for our grandfather’s birthday card, the Prehistoric Animals series for my uncle, who she said was older than the dinosaurs.
‘Stay out of the bathroom for a while,’ she said. ‘Your sister’s going to take a bath. I told her to put her things in your room for now.’
I’d been sure Ida would elope to Graceland before coming back to our small town, our smaller house. Her car was in the garage, a boxy maroon model. The clothes in the dryer weren’t spinning, and they looked like hers. I pulled out a thin grey T-shirt and held it to my face; she would smell like us now. I gathered the rest of her clothes into a loose ball and carried them up to my room. Ida was already in the bath, and the room was dwarfed by her standing suitcase, its yellow silk belly exposed, her things spilling out like organs.
At dinner, we had sweet potatoes with marshmallows in honour of Ida. Iced tea in honour of Ida. Rolls in honour of Ida, frozen ones my father had brought from the grocery store where he worked. It felt like Thanksgiving without the clean, cold air or anticipation of early Christmas shopping in the morning. My parents wanted to pretend it was a holiday, to make a reason for Ida to show up in the driveway when she hadn’t been home for a year or more. Ida had come to the table straight from the bath. She wore the grey T-shirt and sweats and her face was still flushed. We ate while my parents invented conversation. Sugar was stirred into tea, butter was spread, and the quality of the food was discussed. ‘How do you like it?’ my mother asked Ida.
‘Everything’s fine,’ was all she said. She looked at me and smiled, sweet potato on her chin, and I thought maybe it was.
When I am telling a story that involves my sister to people who don’t know her, I never say, ‘She’s not my sister.’ It’s a protective reflex, a built-in defence. The truth is that she looked more like my mother’s daughter than I did, and fell into the part more easily. I have my father’s flat hair, his squinty eyes. Ida has curls like my mother. Their hair grows two sizes bigger in the summer humidity; it bounces when they laugh. When Ida announced she was leaving for Tennessee, my mother said it was the exact right thing to do. When I said I might like to move, too, after high school, she said I wouldn’t survive so far from home. When Ida first came to live with us, it felt seamless. She had been eight, just out of a long and unravelling thread of foster homes. People talk about losing a twin as though they’ve lost a limb. I think I must have gained an arm or leg when Ida came. But I can’t find the place where it was attached, there are no scars or stitches.
That night, the not-Thanksgiving, my room became our room again and we slept with the windows open. The air outside was still and warm; all that came through the screen was the noise of early cicadas, June bugs in May, and the pinprick light of fireflies. I waited for Ida to tell me ghost stories like she used to – all her old families were ghosts – or Memphis stories, or anything, really, but instead she lay on her back, watching the fan spin.
‘So what’s new with you?’ I said, as if she’d called me up, and it was her turn to talk.
‘I’m tired,’ she said.
‘I mean, I’m tired of what’s new. I miss what’s old.’ I wasn’t sure if I counted as old or new. I watched the fan, too, and it hypnotized me into thinking it was cooling off outside. I wanted to say I missed her, too, but I fell asleep before the words could leave my mouth. In the morning I left for school and Ida cooked breakfast with our mother. It was my last day, the first night of the carnival, and Ida wanted to go.
‘I’m going to eat so much cotton candy,’ she said when I got home. She’d put her suitcase in my closet and her clothes were stacked on top.
At dusk we walked to the park together following trails of younger kids already stuffed with sugar. I wanted to know why she’d decided to come back, but I felt it would be better if she forgot where she was. Instead I said, ‘How much cotton candy?’ and she held out her arms in front of her flat stomach, to show how much fatter she would be. By the end of the night, we’d made friends with Carl; by the next week, I was a high school graduate, and we were living in the back of his camper.
Carl took care of the racing turtles. In other words: there was a tent next to the Zipper ride; inside it, a short, ring-shaped fence with openings cut out all along the circumference and numbered one to twenty-six; inside the ring, a five-gallon bucket turned upside down; and inside the bucket, ten turtles waiting. You placed your bet on which opening a turtle would stumble through first, once Carl lifted the bucket and the crowd started clapping and yelling. Twenty-five cents per bet, with a possible two-dollar pay-off if a turtle went through the door whose number you chose.
The first time, Ida and I leaned over the ring like everyone else, thinking we were lucky. ‘I’d keep an eye on nineteen,’ Carl said to Ida, when she stepped up with a quarter. His head had been shaved and the dark hair was just beginning to grow back. He stepped inside, put his palms on the bucket and winked at us before lifting it over his head. We lost, of course, but it didn’t matter at the time.
At first we stayed later and later at the carnival, losing money on Carl’s turtles. That Saturday I came home from my short ceremony, still capped and gowned, and Ida was gone, even her suitcase was gone. I sat in the closet for a good thirty minutes, trying to fill the space she’d left, until I realized she might have only drifted ahead. I didn’t try to make her come home. I showed up at Carl’s eating cotton candy, like I knew all along she was there. I wasn’t invited, but she never told me to leave.
I hardly knew anything about Carl. At the time he seemed old, much older than Ida or me, but I think it was because he had settled into a certain rhythm in his life and was happy in it. He said he split time between his camper and the carnival circuit, and spent winters at his brother’s house in Lenexa. I liked the foreign feeling of sleeping on a fold-out bed wedged between the sink and mini fridge. It was like camping in your neighbour’s backyard, when in the dark it seemed you might be braver than you’d accounted for.
Carl was parked at the edge of the carnival near the pond. He kept the turtles in a blue kiddie pool filled with dirt. At night he dug in the ground for worms to feed them, and we talked about where we should go.
I said I’d want to go anywhere to see something besides corn and hills. Florida, I said. The ocean.
‘We’ve been to Florida,’ Ida said. ‘I was in seventh grade, so you were in third. We went to Epcot and you didn’t want to go on any rides except the slow one about outer space. That was your astronomer phase.’ Carl laughed. ‘And there was that toucan who lived outside our hotel.’
‘We fed him grapes,’ I said. ‘But we didn’t see the ocean.’
‘I’ll tell you what. You girls want to see the ocean?’ Carl said. ‘After this is done,’ he nodded at the turtles, ‘we’ll see the ocean. We’ll swim with dolphins and build sand castles and all that.’ He dropped a handful of worms into the pool and wiped his hands on his jeans.
There were more fireflies that evening, blinking on and off like signals on a radio tower, reflecting in small bursts off the pond. But lights on towers, we decided, were often mistaken for stars, while fireflies were always only what they seemed and nothing more. And Carl said they were more like lightning than fire, which implied alarm and licks of flame. After the Ferris wheel lights went out, we sat in lawn chairs and watched the turtles circle slowly around the edge of the pool, like nervous skaters at a roller rink.
Ida spent a few nights on the fold-out bed with me and then moved to Carl’s room, the skinny compartment of the camper that floated above the truck bed. I walked home then, and watched TV with my parents. I made a bag of microwave popcorn and sat on the floor near the couch.
‘What the hell are you two doing out there?’ my mother asked, during a commercial.
‘We joined the circus,’ I said.
‘It’s a carnival.’
‘We joined the carnival,’ I said. ‘And Ida’s living with the turtle bookie.’
‘Well, let’s hope that’s only his summer job.’ She looked at me and back to the screen, and stretched her legs across my father’s lap. They’d threatened divorce a month before and forgotten about it, like they always did.
The next day, Ida and I rode the Ferris wheel for a long time. Joe, the operator, was a friend of Carl’s, and he let us on before the night started. Families were eating early dinners at home. The sky was clear and still empty of stars, and we could see Carl by the pond, moving the turtles into a bucket and starting toward his tent. We could see the hardware store down the street and where the small cluster of homes, our home too, turned into fields of corn and sloping hills.
‘At the end of the week,’ Ida said. ‘Carl’s leaving for Eureka Springs.’
People were sitting outside the bingo tent, waving off mosquitoes with their cards. ‘Are you going?’ I said.
‘He hasn’t asked me.’
‘I wouldn’t bet on that,’ she said. ‘He says he has a daughter in Wichita. He sees her in the winter, brings her baby turtles.’
Joe yelled up at us that he was going to get a snow cone. When he stopped the wheel we were halfway between grass and sky.
‘Does that make him good?’ Ida asked. I knew what she was thinking, because her hands tightened around the bar and she looked past everything and out to the fields. ‘He sees her,’ she said.
I didn’t know. I said it must make him all right at least, no worse than anyone else.
Joe started us up again. I had a pepper in my pocket and cut through its tip with my teeth as if it were a sour-sweet strawberry. Eventually, all I tasted was something smooth and earthy, no heat. I twisted the stem between my fingers until it snapped. When we were near the top again, I let it fall and watched until it was a speck and then nothing, probably still falling though I couldn’t see it.
Carl made dinner for us on his last night in town. Canvas was pulled down and folded and stacked, booths were dismantled in the distance. The village that had sprung up in the park was collapsed, everything but the Sky Wheel packed and ready for Arkansas. Joe was riding on it himself now, the occasional glow of his cigarette visible in the dusk and merging with the blinking bulbs that framed the wheel.
Dinner was a pack of hotdogs Carl took from the concessions trailer. ‘They won’t even notice,’ he said. ‘They buy wholesale anyway, so this entire pack isn’t worth more than seventy-five cents.’ He had trouble thinking in increments larger than quarters. That was what he did all day, he said, so it made sense. Ida said he had tube socks full of change hidden in his microwave for safe keeping.
He arranged the hot dogs on the grill I’d carried here from our garage and settled back into his lawn chair. Joe yelled to us that he’d better get down and call his wife, so Ida walked over to stop the motor. I took my tennis shoes off so blades of grass could poke through the gaps of my toes.
‘Ida’s older than you,’ Carl said, ‘but I think sometimes she’s trying to follow you. She’s starting to walk like you. I’ve been trying to figure her out, but she won’t talk about anything besides her sister.’
‘Why’d you tell us to bet on nineteen?’ I said. ‘Why that door?’
‘Oh, you looked a little lost is all. When you came in the tent.’ Carl pushed his shoulder into my shoulder, and I wanted to eat another hot pepper. He whispered into my ear. ‘I figured you’d need a nudge in the right direction.’
‘It wasn’t the right direction,’ I said, wanting to look away.
Joe was almost on the ground. He waved to Ida.
‘Well, in a direction then,’ Carl said.
Ida came back, and Carl got up to turn the hot dogs. They were beginning to pop and split along the burned side. We ate them with mustard relish Carl found in his fridge.
‘Condiments are all you need to be responsible for,’ he said. ‘They never expire.’
I thought that sounded a little hopeful; something to look forward to, having my own bottles of ketchup and mustard and never having to throw them away half-full. Carl left the lid off the grill, and we watched the coals turn from red to orange to black to grey.
‘You won’t be here tomorrow,’ Ida said, and turned to Carl. ‘We’ve got to do something special.’
‘We ate hotdogs,’ Carl said.
‘No, that doesn’t count. Something else. Let’s go swimming.’ She pulled at Carl’s arm.
‘The pool’s not open yet,’ I said.
‘But the pond’s right there.’ Ida was thinking of all the stories we’d heard—how it was almost nice at night, trees reaching up from the bottom to tickle the arches of your feet, silver reflections of the moon skimming the surface. She stood and pulled her shirt over her head.
‘Oh no,’ Carl said. ‘I’m staying here and I’m staying dry.’
Ida left her shorts and shirt on the lawn chair, and started walking toward the pond.
‘You be crazy if you want, but I’ve got to wake up in five hours and get on the road.’ Carl looked at me. ‘Are you crazy like your sister?’ he said.
I thought about saying ‘She’s not my sister,’ but instead I unbuttoned my shirt and followed her.
I thought I knew how she wanted it to be. Maybe he would swim to her and kiss her, or he would tread water in the middle, pull her close and say, ‘Come with me to Arkansas.’ But it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t romantic. Ida leaned over the water and launched herself in. I walked in behind her, then hurried to get past the reeds brushing against my calves and the algae slick under my feet. The pond felt like tap water that had been run hot and left to sit until morning. In the dark, our bodies met the water and disappeared.
‘Well?’ Carl said.
‘It’s great. You should join us.’ Ida tried a breaststroke and I jerked my legs back and forth to keep fish away. Carl stood near the shore watching us, but he didn’t come in.
Ida and I found rocks near the shore, where lizards sunned. We stayed until Carl climbed back into the camper and turned the lights out. By then the cicadas had lullabied themselves to sleep. I walked out of the water and sat on the grass, trying to wring my shorts dry.
‘Ida’ I said, but she’d already slid down, off her rock. She floated on her back, toward the far bank.
‘Good night,’ I called, but she only kicked her feet, gliding faster, away from where we’d been. The park was completely dark, even John and his Ferris wheel had gone. I woke up twice that May night: once to move over when Ida slid under the blankets, and again to meet Carl at the end of our street. In the morning, we were gone with the carnival.
At seventeen, I felt old because I could map our entire town with a pen and paper napkin, not just its streets but the people who lived on them, and not just their names and past lives, but their geography, bumps on fingers, pain in joints, stubble on thighs and chins. Carl was uncharted, and he wanted me to see the ocean. After we married, we only made it as far as Oklahoma—though he did take me to see Catoosa’s Blue Whale. This man, dead now, had built the whale for his wife, a private surprise strangers like us now share. There’s a picture of Carl and I posing under one of the entrance signs, two whales kissing over our heads. We were supposed to be kissing, too, but something in the distance caught my eye, or the other tourist took the picture too late, because I’m turned the other way, hair hiding my face. Was I smiling like the whale? I shrug, when anyone asks.
We have a daughter, and I do what I can to keep her safe. To keep her close. She sucks on the ends of her hair like Ida and she brings me turtles she finds wandering the woods. Once we kept one in a cardboard box. She and I dug for worms to feed it, saved fat crickets, bits of ham, but it died anyway. Now she offers them lettuce and we decorate the bottom of their shells with nail polish, and then we let them go. She writes her name in messy letters, and I always add a number for luck. I tell her the numbering is so that we can keep track, so that we will recognize them if they come back to us.
We have many condiments that have passed their sell-by dates, and we still eat them. We moved to Colorado, where the rain is cold, never humid or falling in sheets. It could turn Ida’s fireflies to smoke. But sometimes in the summer a certain time is carried over mountains and to our valley. I’m not sure how it finds me, the exact scent of pond water in my sister’s hair. Carl says I am crazy, so I no longer ask him, does he smell it?
Maybe I keep telling this story because I want to go back and say something to make Ida understand. But I’m afraid it’s more selfish than that. What if Ida and I had left together? That’s the part I want to know. I’d be childless, husbandless, the landscape of my life more familiar. I know women who want to turn their lives around. ‘I’d drive off into the sunset,’ they confess to me. ‘Really, right through the centre of the sun, and boy if he wouldn’t see that coming.’ They think I, a quaint Midwesterner, don’t dream of this too.
It’s been a long time since the carnival came, and Ida and I swam in the shadows of the pond, skirted the shallow edges in the dark. I’m pregnant again, picturing my belly full of cotton candy, growing and stretching. There will be weeks of sickness, straws and saltines. I picture Ida stepping out, long-lost, and what I’d do if she did: I’d get out of the house and go anywhere with her, point out all the mountains I know from the top of a Ferris wheel, tell her that from the peaks you can almost see where we used to live. I’d joke she looks even prettier than the picture our mother picked for her memorial, the one that reached me in an over-stuffed envelope, stamped LOVE, LOVE, IDAHO. I still owe the postman sixteen cents, but maybe he’s forgiven me. I wouldn’t tell Ida I’d stared at it for weeks, trying to place her, that grown and gone woman in the photo. I wouldn’t say that our fields were highways by then, and abandoned farms—nowhere we could go back to.
Image courtesy of 7 Bits Of Truth