It was friday. Everyone was somewhere else, doing last-minute chores. The tall young man got out of his little green station wagon, stretched, looked around, took off his sunglasses, and started up the walk. Minnie Frederick, who saw him through her bedroom window, dropped the stack of sheets she was carrying and ran down the stairs. But he was not at the door, and when she went out onto the porch, he was nowhere to be seen. Back in the house, through the kitchen, out onto the stoop. Still nothing, apart from Jesse, her nephew, a noisy dot, cultivating the bean field east of the Osage-orange hedge. She walked around the house to the front porch. The car was still there. She crossed to it and looked in the window. A pair of fancy boots in the foot well of the passenger’s seat, two wadded-up pieces of waxed paper, a soda can. She stood beside the green car for a long moment, then touched the hood. It was warm. It was real. She was not imagining things, sixty-seven years old, she who came from a long line of crazy people on all sides, who was both happy and relieved to have chosen long ago not to reproduce. What, she thought, was the not-crazy thing to do? It was to make a glass of iced tea and see if her sister, Lois, had left any shortbread in the cookie jar.
When had Lois first mentioned him—Charlie Wickett—sometime in January? But Minnie hadn’t paid attention, because she was planning her summer trip to Rome. He was Tim’s son, Lillian and Arthur’s grandson, produced by means of one of those irresponsible high-school romances that every principal was only too familiar with. The baby had ended up in St. Louis. Tim had ended up in Vietnam, killed by a grenade fragment. Charlie now lived in Aspen, said he would be happy to meet everyone, to drive to Denby, and within a week, a reunion had exploded around his coming. They were all heading to the farm—Frank and Andy, Michael and Richie with their wives and kids, Janet, alone (Minnie remembered that Janet had always had a thing about Tim), Arthur and Debbie and her kids (Hugh, her husband, couldn’t come because of exams, though). There hadn’t been a family gathering of this size since Claire’s wedding—1962, that was. Minnie hoped everyone would mind their manners. She knew plenty of farm families who did not get along, but they kept their conflicts to themselves and behaved, at least in public. Families that had scattered, like the Langdons, could end up looking and acting like alien species of a single genus. Frank had nothing in common with Joe (never had), except that, thanks to Frank, the farm was paid off. Frank let Jesse and Joe work the land however they wished. Lillian, whom everyone had loved, had passed three and a half years before, and there was plenty of family gossip about what a mess Arthur and Debbie were. Dean kept to himself, and Tina, the youngest, had taken off to the mountains of Idaho. She wasn’t coming (but she had driven down to Aspen, met Charlie, liked him, and issued a bulletin in the form of a drawing that depicted a handsome, laughing kid. How she had gotten the twinkle into his eye, Minnie didn’t understand). For once, Henry was coming from Chicago (Minnie suspected that no one in Chicago knew that Henry was a farm kid). Only Claire, who was driving up from Des Moines, was a regular visitor. A big party. Lois was in charge of the cooking, Jen in charge of shopping, Joe in charge of the generous welcome. Minnie had done a lot of cleaning.
Now Charlie appeared on the other side of the screen door, loose-limbed and fit. He saw her, he smiled, and Minnie said, “I thought you were a phantom.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” said Charlie. “When I got out of the car and realized how hot it was getting, I decided I had to take my run right away, so I ran around the section. What is that, do you think?”
“Four miles,” said Minnie.
He said, “Well, I’m not used to the heat yet. But it’s really flat, so that makes up for it a little.”
She got up and opened the door. She said, “I’ll bet you’d like some water.”
She took a glass out of the drainer and held it under the tap. Not too brown. Lois had bought some kind of French sparkling water for the weekend, though Minnie was surprised you could get that sort of thing in Iowa. He tilted his head back, opened his mouth, poured it down. She didn’t see the Langdon in him the way Frank had when he first espied him in a coffee shop in Aspen last fall, and, supposedly, was convinced the boy was a younger version of himself. Nor did she hear it in his voice (but, then, she hadn’t spent much time with Tim). What she saw was grace and a ready smile. His eyes flicked here and there as he drank—he was no less observant than Frank, probably, but he looked like those kids she had known over the years whose parents were indulgent and easygoing, kids who understood that redemption was automatic.
Yes, she was charmed.
She said, “I’ve made the bed in your room. You can take your things up there and have a rest, if you’d like. Everyone else should be home in a bit. Jen took Guthrie and Perky into town to Hy-Vee, but she should be back any time.” He filled his glass again and drank it down. She said, “My name is Minnie Frederick; my sister, Lois, is married to your great-uncle Joe. Gosh, we sound old! I’m the dedicated aunt of Annie and Jesse, also a nosy neighbor, retired local principal, and arbiter of disputes.”
“Are we going to need one of those?”
“We should know by tomorrow evening.”
The smile popped out. He said, “I thought of bringing my protection squad along, but she had to work.”
“We heard about her.”
“You don’t know that you were followed, that your license-plate number was jotted down, that your every move went into the photographic memory of Frank Langdon?”
“When was that?”
“Last September. You sold him boots, too.”
Charlie shook his head, but he didn’t seem disconcerted. He looked at the ceiling moldings for a moment, then said, “May I look around the house? My mom would love this house.”
“It’s a kit house from 1916. It arrived on the train, and my father, grandfather, and uncles helped put it together. There used to be lots of other houses around, including the Langdon place, which we could see from here, but that one had to be torn down. We had a one-room schoolhouse within walking distance, but that’s all gone now. In some places, there are a few trees where houses used to be.” Minnie made herself stop talking, only said, “But you look around, ask questions if you want. I’m going to clean up in here a bit.”
He went through the swinging door into the dining room. She tried to imagine how the place looked to him. Old, though not decrepit. Weighty? Awkwardly set into the tall-grass prairie (maybe a sod hut would be more appropriate)? She had lived here her whole life, except for a few years in Cedar Falls, getting her teaching degree. Her parents had died here, and not easily—her mother had lingered for years after her stroke, with only Minnie to take care of her and Lois after her father disappeared, and then her father returned, full of drunken resolve to get something back that was owed him; Lois had found him at the bottom of the cellar stairs, his head smashed into the concrete. (What had he been looking for? Booze? Treasure? Revenge?) But if every day was spent in the same place, then bad days were overlaid by good ones, your home was just your home, there was no reason for restlessness. Even the story Minnie told herself, that she’d always and only loved Frank, was a dusty remnant now that she had watched him habitually disregard the beautiful Andy, now that she’d realized that the small value he placed on his wife had its source in him rather than her. If Frank had, by some miracle, appreciated Minnie, lo these forty years ago, and loved her, and married her instead of Andy, he would have estimated her, too, at less than her real value. It wasn’t in him, whatever it was.
Charlie came back into the kitchen as Minnie was wiping down the sink. He said, “Airy.”
Minnie laughed. “Well, exactly. But thanks for reminding me to shut the windows. We can keep out maybe five degrees of heat if we close the place down for the afternoon. Tonight might be okay; your room has a fan, at any rate. No air conditioner—sorry.”
“Oh, I don’t like air conditioners. My grandmother’s lived in St. Louis for almost sixty years without an air conditioner. She believes in wringing a cloth out in cool water, then folding it across the back of your neck.”
“She sounds enterprising. You do what you want. There’s always plenty of food. You weren’t supposed to be here till tomorrow, but I’ll tell Jesse and Jen that you’ll be coming and going as you please.”
And he took her hand in his warm one, squeezed it, and said, “Thanks! Thanks, Minnie. You are great! I hope all the Langdons are like you.”
the official dinner was Sunday at three. Janet was standing maybe a little too close to her cousin Debbie, but Debbie didn’t seem to notice. She was saying, “Why would we ever see him again, now that he’s seen us roast this hog? I mean, look at the smoke over the house, like a black cloud. Could it be any cruder?” Debbie sneezed. They were in the kitchen—Janet slicing tomatoes, Debbie chopping celery. Through the window, Janet could see the whole family staring at the sizzling pig; of course her dad looked avid, but everyone else was smiling in anticipation, too. Janet had thought meringues and soufflés were more Aunt Lois’s sort of thing. Debbie went on, “I mean, I was ready for Tim’s doppelgänger, you know? But I don’t see it in this Charlie. And that’s a relief.” Janet did see it, though—the hips, the hair, the vocal timbre. Debbie said, “I admit I was afraid at first, and to you, I will admit why—the comeback of the golden boy.” She shook her head. “But this is good for me. I’ve come to terms with my own issues, which everyone has to do at some point, right?”
Janet did not confess the waves of irrational hope that had broken over her these last few weeks. This Charlie would be something of a resurrection; would she adore him, would she embarrass herself? Her childhood worship of her cousin Tim was family legend. She said, “I hope so.” Charlie had turned out to be himself, in spite of his resemblance to Tim. And Janet had turned out to have no feelings toward Charlie other than regular first impressions. She said, “At least he’s not some stray product of my dad’s youth.”
“Uncle Frank had a youth?” They both smiled. “Who said that?”
“My mom,” Janet said. “She thinks of that as a joke.” Debbie rolled her eyes. Janet said, “Has anyone told Fiona?” Janet remembered Fiona as Debbie’s wild and intimidating equestrian girlfriend, much braver than any horsey girl Janet had known at Madeira or Sweet Briar. That Fiona had been at all interested in any boy, even Tim, and had gotten pregnant, was more than a little startling.
“I did,” said Debbie.
“How did she react?”
Debbie spun toward her, knife in hand. “She said, I quote, ‘How interesting. Oh dear. There’s the van. I’ll call you.’ ”
“Did she ever call you?”
Debbie shook her head.
he fit right in, thought Henry, who was standing on the back stoop, letting the breeze blow the stench from the roasting hog away from him. Extrovert, for sure. Charlie didn’t just shake your hand, he patted you on the shoulder, looked you in the eye. From where he was standing on the porch, a little elevated, Henry could see the pattern—the kid would go from group to group, listen first, say something, listen again, his head bent slightly forward. When he was introduced to Henry, he’d said, “Oh, I hear you teach medieval literature! I took two semesters of that, and, you know, it wasn’t what I expected.” What had he expected? “Well, you can imagine: the first book I ever read was The Once and Future King. I thought it would be lots of sorcerers, not so many monks.” Charming, but he was not Henry’s type. Were he to show up in, say, Henry’s freshman lit class, Henry would prod him, treat him a little severely, imply all semester that Charlie Wickett wasn’t putting anything past old Professor Langdon. The boy might rise to the occasion—sometimes they did. Minnie leaned out the door and said, “Time to get organized!” Everyone began moving toward the table.
emily said that she had to go to the bathroom, but it was just so that she could wait and see where her mom was sitting, and then sit somewhere else. The downstairs bathroom door was closed, though, so she went upstairs, and instead of going to the bathroom, she went through the baby’s room and out to the back porch. From there she could see over the fields to the horizon, and she could imagine her favorite thing, which was flying. She didn’t know how this had started, but maybe from dreaming. Now the dreams and the made-up stuff were mixed up in her mind. She often thought about a myth they had read this year in her school, where a father figured out a way to fly (the book showed giant spreading wings, like eagle wings), but he put the wings together with wax, and when the son got too close to the sun, the wax melted, and the son fell into the ocean. Eli Grissom, who sat behind her in class, pointed out that the son—Icarus, his name was (Eli pronounced it “EYE-carus”)—could not have gotten ninety-three million miles in ten minutes, if at all, but in spite of Eli, Emily imagined it almost every day, the wings catching an updraft, the boy feeling himself lifted, the warmth and the brightness all around. It was too bad, Emily thought, that he didn’t remember how birds bend their necks and fold their wings and swoop downward—maybe he was so excited that, when the wax started melting and the feathers dropped away, he didn’t notice it in time. Emily rested her hands on the sill and leaned toward the window. The horizon was a beautiful thing, she thought.
Copyright © 2015 by Jane Smiley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.