Joyland

The Midwest |

Back Home in Ida County

by Katie Young Foster

Lara, anxious, unable to dream, rose from her bed at midnight. She stepped off the porch. The screen door clipped Marco’s breathing.

The darkness around her was graded: pitch-colored pines, charcoal sky between branches. She switched on her headlamp. At the edge of the yard, a footpath bordered the trees. The path led into the woods, through the prairie, across the neighbor’s cornfield, joined a street.

Lara, jogging now, entered the trees. The path she followed was dirt and circled her home. She kept track of the way in her head: First, Door to yard; yard to path. Then, Path in woods; turn right. Pass gray log. Blackberries. A car-sized pond nearby.

Now: Woods to prairie. Prairie to grass. Grass to cornfield. No more path. Path is row twelve of the cornfield.

Lara picked up speed. She was running. At the end of the cornfield, she turned left.

Field to dirt road. Dirt road to paved road. Fist-shaped scar in the asphalt. Three puddles of light from the streetlamps; Past the Arnolds’; past the Browns’. Pass home.

(Hi Marco.)

At the end of the block, another left. She crossed the yard. Re-entered the woods. Found the path again.

Then, after all that, the thing she could say out loud:

“One.”

In daylight, Lara could have seen the top third of her house, no matter where she was on her circuit. At night—though she didn’t often run at night, only recently—she could sense, more than see, the moss-speckled shingles, the silhouette in the window.

Again, she ran through woods, prairie. Entered the field. Crossed the road. Again, the trees.

“Two.”

 The air smelled like rainclouds. The branches dropped dew. Her skin felt both cold and warm, and she wondered if she had achieved a state of half-sleep, or something.

“Four. No, three.”

Lara heard rustling in the prairie—a pheasant, or a barn cat. She’d lost track. The hour seemed uneasy. Was there even a moon? The night—this night—elided with other midnights, when moons had drifted behind cloud cover. 

“Four.”

The woods rose again—a fortress. The woods fell and, again, she left the cover of trees. She re-crossed the prairie. Re-crossed the prairie. Re-crossed. Nothing changed. Sometimes she walked. It was nice to feel the sweat drying cold sheets on her back, a freezer door’s weight. Walking meant time for her mind to stop tracking. Time to think about the windows of the other houses, which were dark.

There were toys in the Browns’ yard. All along the street, farmhouses reached for each other.

She passed her home. From the street, the light in the bedroom window was softer, rose-colored. Not on, exactly, but not blank, either. Was he up? He was rarely up. She increased her speed.

“Seven.”

Years ago, a mutual friend had set her up with Marco. Hard to describe, the friend had written in an email, but they—Lara, Marco—had felt, to him, inevitable.

“Eight.”

 On the night of their first date, (Lara remembered, batting aside a tree branch) she’d entered the bar in full regalia—black dress, velvet bracelet, bouncy hair. She’d been tired from work—waitressing, then—and underwhelmed by a Tuesday night outing, but happy for an excuse to drink gin. The mutual friend’s email had been vague—look for dark-ish hair, he’d written, and blue eyes. Still, she’d spotted Marco right away. He was sitting at the counter, drinking coffee, folding a napkin into little squares. He was like other men she’d dated—tall, clean-shaven, broad shouldered, the body of a boxer. He wore a compression t-shirt and sandals. Military, she knew immediately, though the thought hadn’t meant much at the time. She had slipped onto the stool beside him.

She ordered a gin and tonic, then a beer. Marco sipped his coffee. They talked a little about the history of the bar, and the weather. She’d overdressed. They looked at each other from the sides of their faces.

“I should have worn my hiking pants,” Lara said, later, when it seemed the night would end early. Marco had not asked for a refill. “I hate dressing up,” she said, on a whim. “Don’t know why I did.” She slid the bracelet off her wrist and dropped it into her napkin.

Marco’s smile was shy, then. One of his canine teeth was chipped. An accident with a fork, Lara found out later, but it was that chip that made her turn, too, as the words flowed out of him. So she liked to hike? Yes. Did she run? Yes. Marco also hiked, also ran. In high school, he’d walked parts of the CDT, had even purchased a snowboard that converted into cross-country skis. Did she climb? Swim? He’d joined the army for the endurance training, kind of, though it wasn’t as grueling as he’d thought. Lara ordered another beer. She told him, casually, that she’d completed a thru-hike in Maine last summer. And, on Mondays, she swam in the lake outside of town. Marco touched her shoulder. He touched her hair. There was a small tattoo of a Pulaski on his forearm.

“Nine.” (She thought about stopping. Didn’t. Her legs continued to run.)

After their date, Lara had left the bar alone. When she’d arrived home, Marco was already there, waiting, parked across the street from her apartment building. Lara went up to her room and changed into hiking pants. She threw her hair into a ponytail, then dug out an old camouflage sports bra and tried it on in front of the mirror. She flexed one calf. A kind of fierceness, it seemed, now occupied her posture. She liked the look and weight of it, even as it dragged her shoulders forward. She moved her hips, touched her nose. Yes, everything she’d told Marco at the bar had been true—she hiked, she swam in lakes. But what she hadn’t told him was harder to put into words, so she’d gone quiet, evasive, would never, in fact, reveal to Marco the truth: that the world outside was an insignificant part of her life, until him.

“Ten,” Lara said. Her shirt was sweat-soaked. She passed between trees, passed the gray log. The berries. The bullfrogs panting somewhere in the darkness of the pond. Now the prairie. Now the fallow cornfield, brittle stalks bent like ghosts in the light from her headlamp. The brightness of morning seemed a year from her.

After the bar, after the camouflage bra, she’d gone downstairs wearing hiking pants. Marco had met her on the street. Together, they’d walked across town, watching the sun set in the windows of buildings.

We, Lara had remembered thinking, somewhat giddily. How quickly her life had merged with his, become theirs, grown twined. Inevitable, the email had said. Yes, Lara thought now. Us, she’d thought then, as they walked, as they listed all the things they’d done, all that they still wanted to do now that they were together—hiking, rock climbing, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, sledding, tree climbing, bouldering, mushrooming, scavenging.

Lara adjusted her headlamp. The eyes of animals sparked in the trees. Maybe the animals watched her. She slowed. Said, “Eleven.”

Three months after their first date, she and Marco had driven to a knobbed western mountain, just to see. They’d camped below treeline and woke to a fresh powdering of snow on the tent. That morning, following cairns, they’d hiked to the peak, crawling on hands and knees when the path grew unclear. The snow had melted as they’d climbed. The wind had picked up. At the top, they’d shared a celebratory bottle of water. Marco kissed her hand. He toasted her—she’d summited two minutes faster. And so gracefully, too, he’d said. She realized, then, that the hike had been a race, perhaps a test. She surveyed the ridges of trees, the sloping planes of the land, and felt happy. She’d kissed his hands, then, too.

It was only during the drive home, she remembered, that Marco had brought up the idea of overseas travel. He knew of pathways through certain mountains, knew the caves where one could sleep. Lara had countered with talk of equipment. What if they purchased an altitude tent? What if they bought shoes for running trails in the desert? But these caves, Marco had said. Dunes, she’d replied. Trees.

Soon after, Marco began outfitting his garage with supplies for their trips. He bought two sets of trekking poles. A sled. Lara clipped out National Geographic articles on end-of-the-trail destinations and filed them in a recipe box. By the end of the year, she’d moved in with him. Most nights, they stayed up late, sitting out on the porch, obsessing over the many ways in which they could (would) die out there, in no where, sung to sleep by the yipping of distant coyotes.

Nature was a thing they believed in, yearned for. For months—then, years—they plucked at the idea of having those adventures together, outdoors. But sometime after his deployment, after their engagement, after her new job teaching history to eighth graders, their conversation naturally drew to a close. In that space of life—waiting to marry, waiting for redeployment—Marco had made her the trail.

“Ten.”

He had worked on the path for weeks, drawing sketches and tilling the ground. Tamping down grass. He’d staged shovels and tools in the trees. From the house, Lara had watched the poses his body made while he worked. His back, bending. Arms raking air. His feet bare on the path. Every so often, she waved, though he never turned. By then, they’d been together for over five years, engaged for two. The trail, he’d said, would be their trail, the sum of all paths they might travel, or not. She’d agreed. They would always save money, of course, for those magazine-clipping adventures. But for now, for always, there was the path to hold them together, to sustain.

“Eleven.”

Lara passed through the orange wash of light from the street lamp. What was the time? Past two? Not quite? She looked left, toward the houses. The Browns’ home. Now the Arnolds’. Mid-morning might have revealed a fresh speckling of mold on the siding, or cracks in the basement’s foundation. Now, in the early hours, the houses suggested angles of majesty—tiers and crenellations, like castles. Lara waved.

One year ago, and days before Marco had left for his second tour—hopefully his last—they’d walked around their own property, discussing the various ways to improve on the path.

How might the trail adhere to the land better? How to take into account X or Y vantage point? It seemed to her they’d talked all day, but said nothing. At twilight, Lara brought out the tent and the sleeping pads. They camped in the heart of the woods. Together, they ate sardines from a can, and burned trash in a fire started with lint she’d taken from the dryer. All this, so he could finish up the path before he left her.

“Ten.”

That night, they’d shared a sleeping bag. Marco had snored, though she did not sleep, so hard was the egg of sadness in her throat. In the morning, there would be no summit, no race. They would fold up the tent and sit quietly on the porch, drinking coffee. Then he would leave, fight abroad for the second time in five years.

Then he did leave. He was gone.

“Eleven.”

Gone, again, and so Lara walked mornings and evenings on the path, imagining him beside her, though in different terrain. He was squatting behind tree roots, like in the movies. Army crawling through the cornfield, like the movies. She did not wear her ring. It was a white pearl set in gold—his grandmother’s. Lara had not worn the ring for a while, only when he’d asked. And he had asked, occasionally.

“Twelve.”

She told herself she did not wear the ring because she had no idea what Marco did for a living. Something something army, yes. Patrol. Deploy. How much of what she read in the papers applied to him? During his first tour abroad, she’d kept a list of possibilities on a notepad at school. During her prep period, she would skim the news and write down the things she imagined Marco doing at that moment in time: Handing out candy to children. Giving pamphlets to villagers. (Townsfolk? Cityfolk? Enemy soldiers? Strangers?) Mining a road with explosives. Sleeping below the stars. Riding in a convoy. Binding the leg of a friend. Dying, somewhere. Playing cribbage somewhere. Taking a shit in the desert. Taking a shit on a toilet. Killing a man on patrol. Killing several men. Gunning down a woman and her child. Working at a computer, never touching a gun, never touching a body, living or dead. Doing pull-ups in the barracks. Eating freeze-dried bananas as a snack. Singing songs with the men; men, she learned later, he called family.

During his deployments, both before and during their engagement, Lara and Marco had talked on the phone about his life there, though she was never allowed to know where he was, so the words hadn’t seemed to register. The landscape abroad had sounded familiar, though, when he’d described it—people, homes, desert, trees. The tasks were familiar, too: walking, shoveling, teaching, talking, printing pamphlets. In dreams, Lara seemed to remember herself there (where?) in uniform, though hers was the get-up that everyone wore; at least, everyone whose mission it was to stay home and wait. In a support meeting for spouses, a mother sitting next to Lara had expressed something very similar—that her jeans and t-shirts and jewelry felt heavier, took on meaning, whenever her sons served overseas.

Lara wore her engagement ring now, though. Wore it here, tonight, running on Dormer Road in Ida County, seventeen steps from the front door of her house. The pearl was a pygmy moon, caught on her skin.

“Twelve.”

For both homecomings, Lara had picked up Marco from the airport. They’d driven home and eaten supper (steak) at the kitchen table, and, afterward, sat together on the porch step, listening to cicadas whirring in the trees. Upstairs, they’d folded back the sheets. Marco showered. They made love, shyly. The Pulaski dragged across one shoulder. Lips kissed her neck. She brushed her fingers across Marco’s back, as if to read the acne there, as if to interpret the bend of his spine. His body seemed unchanged. Yes, the chipped tooth. Yes, the dark-ish hair. She searched for the presence of ribs, for new muscles. Her hands conferred and confirmed with her eyes—here was the same man, the one she’d always known. Here was the same man, again.

Later, while Marco slept, Lara lay awake, waiting, touching his leg with hers, trying to anticipate the night. Would he wake up screaming? Hit her in terror? Emerge from a shadowy dream world of—what? Kamikaze children? Booby-trapped fields? Was he really sleeping, or was he awake, listening to her pretending to sleep, also afraid she might turn on him? She had read these things happened.

And, in the morning—both mornings—Lara had watched Marco buttering his eggs at the counter. The first time, he’d smiled and dropped a pinch of salt down her shirt, teasing. The second time, he’d been watching the news. Both mornings he’d worn his Def Leppard t-shirt, and boxers. Both nights he’d slept soundly, on his side, one arm tucked under his head, breathing deeply. After breakfast, both breakfasts, Lara had gone for a walk on the path. Had she wanted him to do something? Hit her? Scream?

“Twelve.”

No, of course not.

“Thirteen.”

She walked for a mile. To the east, the prairie expelled a small breath of purple into the darkness. The air was getting lighter. Her eyes felt heavy and dry, like gun pellets. She blinked at the hour—4am, maybe.

So, yes, Marco had come back to her—twice. Yes, he’d returned to his work at base and, every night, had returned home to build her the path—perfecting it. He’d even marked the section in the woods near the pond with a slab of petrified wood he’d bought at a yard sale, like a headstone marking a grave. Last night, Marco had told her that he wanted, someday, to display statues of Buddha along the trail as guides. Maybe even decorate the cornfield with statues—behemoth shapes in primary colors, obscure furniture—the kind he’d seen in museums. It would be cool, right?

She’d been wearing her engagement ring last night, too. Last night, when she and Marco had watched a movie (Aladdin) and danced to a 90s CD in the living room, drinking cranberry mocktails, eating chips. Then Marco had showered. She’d brushed her teeth. They’d made love. Then, sleep. But Lara still couldn’t sleep, still couldn’t achieve the degree of peace Marco seemingly found in the day, or in dreams.

He did not drink. He was kind. He had suggested counseling. He’d said, sure, he would talk more about his time over there, and he did, though she couldn’t seem to hear what he told her. The truth was that he had returned to her, seemingly normal, twice, returned the same, so familiar, in fact, that Lara felt she did not know him. He was almost not even there.

She passed the house. Turned off the street. Entered the trees for the last time.

“Fifteen.”

Path in woods; turn right.

She did not look toward the house. She could not see the house, of course—it was still dark out—but if she could see it, would she see him there, sitting at the window, holding the end of a broom? Holding binoculars? Sitting at the window like a sniper, her face in his sights, anticipating her next move?

Or was he asleep? How could he still be asleep?

Lara slowed. She swung her head. The slab of petrified wood appeared in the light from her headlamp, like a chrysalis tipped on its side. She made her way toward it. The early hours, it seemed, rushed into her. She sat.

She sat, and breathed. Waited as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, though, in some ways, it felt as if her body still moved—tripped through the trees, dodged branches. Trampled grass that ripped at the sky like teeth. Passed caravans of houses. Somewhere, an animal made noises, but she couldn’t see it. She could only see black and white.

The white: the light from her porch, now on.

Lara stood and stretched out her calves. Her legs were Jell-O. At the edge of the light from her headlamp, the pond glittered, an abrasion in the woods, silver with bubbles that signaled the escape routes of frogs.

Soon, lights from other porches speckled the street. She tried to guess what the Arnolds ate for breakfast (chocolate chip pancakes), and the Browns (granola bars, cheap yogurt).

Tired, hungry, she dragged herself away from the petrified wood. She was barely walking. Slowly, slowly, she reversed her path through the trees, breaking her circuit, leaving the promise of prairie and cornfields behind her, heading home.

Trees to yard. Yard to door. She climbed onto the porch. She sprawled out on the Welcome mat. Her fingernails smelled like loam, and cedar. The rug felt cool and prickly.

“Here.”

Again, she breathed. The wind scuffled with the chimes Marco had hung over the weekend.

It was 6am, maybe. She smelled smoke. She smiled grimly. Marco was smoking again, and hiding it. There was that.

Open the door. Go inside.

She opened the door. Walked inside. The radio was on. The egg carton was left out on the counter. In the kitchen, Marco was humming. Lara climbed the stairs.

She crawled into the bed and lay there, on her side, too tired to be still, too hungry to sleep, anxious to dream. The bedroom window reflected her eyes. If she stared long enough, the morning appeared—a drizzle of light, the shadow-shapes of the trees. Somewhere, a dog was barking.