AFTER THE STORM
We’re out at Grandma’s farm gathering chicken eggs when the sky unfurls with snow. Grandpa died years ago and Dad can’t get out of bed anymore—the cancer has chewed right through his resolve—so now Leah and I are all she has left. Grandma hands me a box of cookies and says it’s not safe to drive the ten miles home; we’ll have to sleep on the couches in the living room. So we build a fort, just like we used to, while the snow outside piles up like pillows and blankets.
That night we accumulate 33 inches, one of the worst storms in recorded history. Thousands of cattle trapped and feared dead in the fields. Horses collapsed just feet from the warmth of the barns. Through the window the brittle bones of trees buckle under all that weight, their branches poking through the ice like fingers from a grave. “It’s so beautiful, Sarah,” Leah says. “Like an untouched canvas.” I try not to think about what we’ll find in the spring thaw, after the sun eats through the earth’s icy coat.
We can’t even open the front door. Leah sits by the window and sketches while the plows creep along the roads. A few months ago she laughed as she and Sam ran through the meadow by the lake, Leah’s fingers fanning toward the sky like summer flames, and I ached because I wanted her spark to keep drifting, to keep flying, to not smolder next to mine.
Nothing ever turns out as you imagine it, but you keep on imagining all the same.
When we’re finally able to shovel the car out of the driveway, the snow sheets the sides of the road in six-foot drifts. I drive slowly, afraid it will fall, snaring us both in its chalky fist. But Leah’s smiling. “It’s like we’re escaping through a shimmering tunnel,” she says. To where? To New York, to art school. To the mountains. To California. To anywhere.
The rooster in my apartment courtyard wakes me each morning at daybreak. 6:22 a.m. 6:04 a.m. 5:43 a.m. In that brief disorienting moment between sleep and wakefulness, I sometimes imagine I’m back in the Midwest, rising at dawn to carry chicken feed to the mesh coop with my sister. But soon the brick façade outside my window reveals that I’m not in South Dakota, but instead New York, the choked and callous city I’ve lived in for the past ten years. I can sleep through sirens and car horns and screaming Dominican neighbors, but the sound of a rooster crow is stamped in my genetics just the same as my left-handedness. The only difference is that in Queens, bloated and scarred roosters are housed for neighborhood cock fights, not for breeding.
Sometimes I think the incessant crowing is my penance for moving to New York after Dad died, for leaving Grandma and Sarah to handle the farm on their own. For leaving Sam that one summer morning on the gravel road outside the fireworks stand. For not wanting him to come with me; for not even hugging him goodbye. For feeling relieved to leave everything behind. I can never explain why exactly I had to go, it was just something I always knew, ever since I was old enough to grasp the concept of leaving. For all of its flat openness, South Dakota suffocated me, was a fist around my throat. New York seemed exciting and noisy, full of life and movement and smells like roasted lamb and sweat and tar, and people whose hearts ballooned with big city dreams, not the small hometown ones.
“A hearty people,” South Dakotans like to call themselves. People hardened by tough winters and scorching summers and unending barrenness. People who don’t flinch at throwing heavy hay bales into the back of trucks or pulling weeds along acres of soybean rows. I never did understand this life, how such a hearty people could still be so sheltered, so afraid of anything new. But here in New York I see people hardened in a much different way, by ambition and self-preservation, and I don’t care for that much, either. I’m tired of craning to look at the skyline, of living in a city that sprawls up instead of out.
Last summer, a tornado touched down in Brooklyn while I was temping at an ad agency, working overtime to pay off my art school debt. I was the only one in the office who knew it was about to happen; I could tell as soon as I peered out the window and saw a still, severe sky smeared with green. Once in the car with my dad I saw a tornado spout from the same sea-foam clouds, churning with dirt and corn stalks after it hit the ground.
My colleagues laughed, refused to take shelter under desks or tables.
“We don’t get tornadoes here, Leah,” they said. “That doesn’t happen in New York.”
Still, I insisted, my nose pressed against the glass. I didn’t think we got tornadoes here, either. But still, it came.
Fifteen years ago, right after the big storm, a buffalo from Schaefer’s farm got loose and fell through the ice at the lake.
Sometimes in the summers, Leah, Sarah, Jeremy, and I snuck into old Joe’s farm to drink pinched Bud Lights and climb onto the barn’s decaying roof. We could have done this just as easily at my family’s farm, but somehow the roughness of the hay under our palms and the almost-sweet manure scent and the ribbon of Milky Way unraveling across the sky were all heightened under the haze of illegality. We stayed up there, chucking empty beer cans at the cows, until the sky spilled rosy pink and the rooster moaned for us to leave.
In the winters, though, we bundled in wool and met out on the frozen lake, trying to keep the scrape of wind away, that iciness that’s so cold it feels almost hot. Leah brought a flask of whiskey or rum or whatever else she could swipe from her and Sarah’s dad’s liquor cabinet, and we passed it around as the walleye swam just beneath us; the alcohol’s familiar flush momentarily keeping the cold’s heavy hands from collapsing our lungs. Back then, I was always the first to jump over Schaefer’s fence or pad out onto the lake, the thrill of Joe’s shotgun or the shifting ice under my feet the only form of respite from the monotonous days I spent planting soybeans with my father.
The buffalo appeared on the first day of winter during my junior year of high school. Joe’s fence was completely rotted through in places, so no one was really surprised that the poor beast escaped. We weren’t quite at the lake yet when we saw it; we were about five yards back passing around Leah’s dad’s Jim Beam. The buffalo tromped down the hill from Schaefer’s farm, its matted brown legs leaving pitted tracks in the snow. When it hit the lake it didn’t even hesitate, just kept barreling ahead like it knew exactly what was on the other side. It got about thirty feet in when its hoof slipped and it started skittering across the ice. Leah grabbed my arm and I reached around to cover her eyes, pressed her head to my chest, shielding her from what was coming. The ice groaned and cracks shot across the surface, spiderwebbing until the buffalo was trapped inside like a lumbering fly. I swear we could feel the animal’s terror, could hear its soft whimpering, could tell it understood that it was about to die, when the ice gave way with a final wail and the buffalo disappeared into the unbending black water below.
Now we meet at the edge of the lake each December as a tradition. We never go onto the ice anymore, just sort of stand there and contemplate our mortality. This year it’s just me and Leah: Sarah’s at home with a sick baby, and Jeremy’s helping his folks at the café. Leah’s the only one who ever had the guts to leave this place, who gave up the corn for the concrete of Queens. With a mittened hand, she passes me a bottle of Jack Daniels, this time lifted from the corner gas station.
“Sarah never calls me anymore,” Leah says. “I’m worried about her and Jeremy. Is everything okay at the Perch?”
I shrug. I remember when we were younger, Jeremy bussed at the café, scooting us free milkshakes when his dad wasn’t looking. Sarah’s always towered over the rest of ours, dribbled ice cream down the sides, smeared chocolate onto the cracked counter.
“I just don’t want her to be tied down to this godforsaken town forever.” Leah glances at me out of the corner of her eye. “No offense.”
I used to wonder what would have happened if I had followed Leah to New York. But she never asked me to and I never did, so I stopped wondering.
We stand arm-to-arm for a while, looking out at the lake. I think about what’s underneath its frozen surface—the fish and the crawdads and the algae and the bones of that poor dead buffalo, encased in ruthless mud. I pass Leah the whiskey.
“I think we should go onto the ice.”
Leah looks up at me from under her wool-brimmed hat. “Really?”
“I don’t know, Sam,” she says. “Are you sure?”
I reach for her mitten. “It’s been fifteen years, you know. We should honor him somehow.” And I pull her forward, remembering how the buffalo had tramped out onto the ice with such purpose. Heading for who knows what—just freedom, I suppose. At first Leah resists, plants her feet in the snow, but then she relents and we slide out onto the ice together, not even lifting our boots, until we’re ten feet in from the lake’s edge. She keeps hold of my hand, as if it will lighten our weight somehow, will keep us from being swallowed into a yawning gap of ice. But nothing happens, the wind just whistles with the faint sound of swelling water.
Below us, the ice moans.
The sun is just starting to edge over the horizon as I make the drive into town. Wind turbines dot the fields on either side of the road, their metal arms slowly wheeling in the morning breeze. The lights on top are glowing as signals to the low-flying planes, creating constellations of blinking red stars. I remember the very first time I ever held Sarah’s hand on top of Schafer’s farm, the night sky was filled with stars so bright they were almost blinding.
After a few miles I pass the sewage plant, a squat concrete building that emerges from the snow like a grimy igloo. Each spring, when the snow melts, the plant releases a thick aroma of stale piss that penetrates through the truck and lodges itself into the back of my throat. Most people around here think that spring is the most beautiful time of the year. Not me.
Soon I reach the town limits and slow down, the truck’s wheels spinning through the dirty slush. A large buffalo statue looms above the stop sign at the intersection, its once-shiny brown coat long since stripped to dirty white patches—a shabby albino buffalo greeting visitors to a shabby town full of bars, churches, and dollar stores in equal numbers.
Sighing, I pull into the Perch’s parking lot and turn off the engine. Even though it’s only 5:53, Walt is sitting in his car, idling, waiting for me to open up. I tip my hat to him on the way inside.
I flip on all the lights and get the fryer running. Mom and Dad own the place, but Dad’s been having a hard time getting around lately, what with the liver disease, so I manage the place on my own most days from open to close. Sarah doesn’t like the long hours, bitches at me for not spending enough time with the kids, and then when I do bitches at me for not making enough money. She didn’t like it when I agreed to take over the café, thought it would suck the life out of us. “The little life we have left,” she said. Sarah’s never been one to look at the bright side. So I just do what I can, try to balance work and make money, try my best to do right by my family.
After unlocking the front door I usher Walt inside, get his coffee brewing as he hangs up his coat and rubs his large calloused hands together. He sits in his usual stool in front of the cookie tin. I fill him a cup of coffee and slide it across the counter.
“How’s the family?” he asks, wrapping both hands around the warm mug.
“Good.” I pour myself a cup too, slip in a dash of whiskey underneath the counter. “Well,” I correct myself, “Tony’s sick with a fever, actually. Sarah’s at home with him. Her mom’s watching the girls.”
Walt nods. “Ain’t nothing worse than a sick baby. I bet he’s damn near bawled his head off.”
I sip my coffee, let it burn down the back of my throat. After a few nightcaps I’m pretty much out for the count, but Sarah’s been looking pretty exhausted lately, so yeah, the poor guy has probably been doing a lot of screaming. Then again, when doesn’t Sarah look exhausted? I’ll be sure to pick her up some roses at the market on the way home.
There’s a decent lunch and dinner rush today, the usual parade of farmers and factory workers and fat woman with poufy bleached hair. Sam stops in during the mid-afternoon lull while I’m sitting behind the counter nursing another whiskey and coffee. He asks for two sandwiches to go. I wrap and hand them to him in a paper sack.
“For you and your dad?”
“Yeah.” He fumbles in his pocket, ends up needing to take off his gloves to reach for a crumpled twenty. His hands are red and chapped. “We’re trying to bring in the last of the harvest.”
I pass Sam his change. “Good luck. I heard it’s gonna snow later.”
He nods goodbye and I turn around and start wiping down the soda machine. The two of us haven’t been all that close ever since Leah left.
I close up right before eight and make it to the market just in time. They have my whiskey all ready at the register and I pick out a dozen fresh roses, in full bloom and as red as a hay fire on one of those muggy summer nights. I gave Sarah a rose on our very first date in high school, thought I was all suave and debonair, pulled it out from behind my back and got down on a knee and presented it to her. Her face just lit up. It was one of the few times I’d ever seen it do that. I got that socked-in-the-gut feeling, like I couldn’t breathe right. I wanted to cup myself around her, protect her match flame, make her light up like that forever.
The baby howls, his voice like the scrape of heavy wood against wood. I shut my eyes and count to five before standing and walking to the bathroom, running a washcloth under cold water, and wringing it out in the sink. In the bedroom he’s thrashing tiny fists and feet in the crib, his face crushed pink like a sunrise on a cold and clear morning. I place the washcloth against his flaming forehead. The heat soaks through the cloth and warms my hand. He quiets a little bit, so I stand there cupping the baby’s smooth head as I would a cantaloupe before slicing.
Sometimes I stare at the faces of my family, of Jeremy’s and the kids’, and I get overwhelmed by my own selfishness, by how much I want to leave them, to just get in the car and drive and drive and drive. By how easy it would be for me to squeeze this fragile fruit under my palm. Other times, though, I brim with affection for their achingly lovely faces, think it impossible that I ever considered even just one moment away from them. And then there are the times I look at them and feel nothing at all.
There’s a sharp knock at the front door and the baby starts wailing again, so I goose him into my arms and open the door, the baby’s snot seeping through the sleeve of my sweater. Leah’s standing there, holding wine, snowflakes perched on her eyelashes and ricocheting off her oversized duffel coat and into the empty chrysanthemum pots on the porch. She takes a step back from the screaming baby, but I shuffle him over to one arm and pull her inside.
“Is he okay?” she asks, dusting the snow from her hat and hair.
I grab the wine bottle and head to the kitchen while she removes her coat. “He has a fever.” I feed him some baby aspirin and open the wine. Leah comes into the kitchen and I point to the cupboard with the wine glasses, so she pulls two down.
“Mom told me she’s watching Becky and April tonight,” Leah says, pouring us both glasses of chardonnay. She nods at the baby, at his tiny chapped nose. “Since Tony’s sick.”
I nod and go back and sit on the couch, rocking the baby in one arm and sipping my wine with the other. Leah follows me.
“That’s nice of her.” She leans into an armchair. “Where’s Jeremy?”
I shrug. “Working. Or maybe he’s at the bar.”
Leah chews her lip, watches me, but neither of us says what we’re thinking. The baby is quieting again, his eyes are drooping, so I keep on rocking him, imagining a boat on the smoothest of days at the lake. “So, have you seen Sam yet?”
“I saw him last night, actually.” Leah looks away. “At the lake.”
“Ah.” The baby yawns and wraps a tiny fist around my finger. I fight the urge to rip it away. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it.”
“Well, we missed you guys.”
I keep rocking the baby until I’m sure he’s asleep. Through the window behind Leah I can see the snow falling like thick, fat anchors. “So tell me what’s new. How’s New York life?”
“Oh, same as usual, I suppose.” Leah sips her wine, holds it in her mouth, swallows. “I finally got a raise, so that’s good. I’m celebrating with a trip to Budapest.”
“Wow,” I say. “Budapest.” The furthest place I’ve ever visited is Colorado, on a skiing trip with Jeremy’s family.
Leah nods. “You know how I’ve always wanted to go. I was going to tack it onto my Vienna trip last fall, but that didn’t end up working out.”
I make Leah tell me all about her recent trips, about her new boss, about the guys she’s dating. The wine disappears so Leah grabs some beers from the fridge. The baby stays still in my arms.
Tipping my can toward Leah’s, I offer her a salute. “You’ve always been so brave,” I say. “I wish I’d had your courage, explored the world more.”
Leah glances down, traces the lip of her can with a pink fingernail. “But look at you.” She raises her eyes, stares at me and the baby. “Look at you and your beautiful family.”
Neither of us speaks for a few minutes. I can’t expect Leah to understand the depths of my loneliness, my sickness.
Nothing ever turns out as you imagined it.
Leah gets up to use the bathroom and suddenly I'm alone. The snow drops faster and faster outside the window until it's only a sheet of white. I bend over the baby, hold him tighter to my chest, kiss his flushed forehead. I wait for the heaviness to settle in the hollows.
DANI HEINEMEYER, a native of South Dakota, is now pursuing an MFA at San Diego State University. She works in Balboa Park, writes about corporate events, and edits for progressive literary journal, Fiction International. Previously she wrote grant proposals, hung out with dinosaurs, and watched avant-garde performances she didn't understand at the American Museum of Natural History and Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. She received her B.A. from Macalester College and Goldsmiths College in London. This is her first published work of fiction. Find her at daniheinemeyer.com.