She doesn’t know what the plant is, but she imagines it is wheat; she is walking through a wheat field, like a farm girl, or no: like Antonia in that book they had to read in English. The stalks grow on hillsides and in big fields, and if you take hold of one with your fingertips, and pull upwards along the stem, little hulls pop off and fall into your palm. They are soft and rough at the same time, and feel grainy in your hand. There are millions of them, so Anges doesn’t feel badly about de-seeding them this way as she walks from the empty lot behind the house to the back deck, or up through Parker’s field from town. It isn’t a crop anyone has planted, just a wild mountain weed that grows everywhere, and Agnes can’t shake the idea that the little weeds want her to pull on them; that they yearn for this, so the ones she pulls as she walks by are happy about it. Spear grass, it’s called, but Agnes doesn’t know that. It is 1986; her family has never owned a computer, and she can’t look up the name of it in an encyclopedia without already knowing the name of it. No one has ever mentioned what the plant is, even though it grows everywhere in this town.
Agnes read somewhere that the way to truly appreciate a thing is to know it fully, to educate oneself about it. Her dad would tell them that was precisely what the encyclopedias are for; for looking up anything in the whole world that you want to know more about. He purchased a whole set of Encyclopedia Britannica from a man that went around selling books door-to-door in 1979. She was only about eight, but she remembers how much he loved them, and how her mom teased him for falling for the sales pitch. The books’ covers are wine-colored leather, or something that looks like leather, and they’re lined up in order on the knotty pine bookshelves in the living room, in a way that suggests he is proud of them. They still smell new when you crack them open.
But Agnes disagrees about educating yourself completely. She prefers not knowing. About spear grass, or types of clouds–her teacher back in fifth grade made them memorize cumulus and nimbus, cirrus and stratus, ruining cloud-watching for Agnes–or even how babies are made. She could probably look that up in Encyclopedia Britannica, she thinks, though she’s pretty sure she knows about the babies thing because of Jeff Norris in sixth grade. Jeff was her partner for square dancing in gym class, his friends laughing and teasing him when the partners were read aloud. “Sucks to be you,” they’d said, and, “Norris got Fatso.” Jeff had been surprisingly good at square dancing, for a boy, and when they learned the allemande left, he squeezed her hand hard and jerked her close to him, and whispered in her ear all about how babies were made, or at least the basics, in a creepy voice. She was not shocked, it seemed reasonable that something like that would have to take place, but she figured he must have some of it wrong. The mechanics seemed impossible. She did not want to know more.
She lets the seed pods fall into her palm until she has a fistfull, and then flings them into the blue sky. She does not make a wish.
The sky is always blue here. It is impossibly beautiful, a panorama of mountains against a blue canvas that is somewhere between cornflower and turquoise, the little town plopped in the middle like a toy village, post office and A-frame churches made of bright cardboard. It is rustic and cute and comforting. So Agnes, clomping along in reeboks that she thought would make her look cool but actually make her look awful–her shins shorter, her ankles thicker–knows that she should be happy, but she is miserable.
Coming upon the house, she pauses, and then walks down the hill to the weathered and crumbling deck and through the back door, letting the screen door slam. She does not have to knock here, it isn’t that kind of arrangement. She comes to babysit the Maynard kids three days a week, though they are phasing her out, she knows. They can’t afford her, or don’t want to. She only charges three dollars an hour, and there are five kids, including a baby. It’s hard work. Mrs. Maynard (if she really is Mrs. Maynard; she’d told Agnes to call her Deb, and mentioned once that she and Mr. Maynard don’t believe that a marriage certificate makes you a family, and don’t see why the government should have anything to do with their love), is a part time nurse and needs someone to watch the children, but the oldest, Han, is twelve and Deb sees no reason he can’t just watch his sisters and the baby himself soon. The reason, Agnes thinks privately, is that Han is a moron, and mean to his sisters. He can burp the alphabet up to Q.
It was supposed to be Cassidy’s babysitting job, but she’d done it once and said never again. “It’s gross there,” she’d said. “Everything is sticky and it smells like dog poo–why do they need three dogs? And that Han kid is a creep. He tried to touch my boobs and he took ten bucks from my wallet. And the stupid baby has a runny nose like, all the time.” It is all true, but Agnes needs the money. Wants the money. I could do it, she’d said, and Cassidy had only raised an eyebrow. “Suit yourself,” she said. And later, “Be careful of that oldest one, Ag. Don’t let him cop a feel.”
That was a year ago, when Agnes was fourteen. Han had never tried anything with her, and Agnes knows he won’t this summer either. Which is good, she would vomit if he did, she would die, but it stung that he–even gross, mean, twelve-year-old Han–wouldn’t want to. Han was a foster kid, taken on by the Maynards because they “felt strongly about Viet Nam.” His name started with an H like their girls, which they took as a sign. Now they’ve adopted him, Agnes thinks, but she isn’t sure and doesn’t want to ask. He is mean to everyone, but she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, if he has any.
Holly and Hattie come careening around the corner into the kitchen, shrieking. Holly is smiling, but Hattie is crying, genuinely terrified. Han is close behind them, wielding a bat, poised right above Hattie’s head. Agnes thinks: it begins.
“Hey, put that down, that could really hurt some–”
“He’s trying to KILL US!”
“Agnes is here!”
Hattie buries her face in Agnes’ stomach, then shifts to her back, her skinny arms around Agnes’ waist, clasped in front as if her life depends on it. Maybe it does. Han might have actually hit her, and worried about the consequences later. No, not worried. He wouldn’t care.
Han gives her a look, a look meant to convey that he is walking away because he’s grown bored of them all, not because Agnes has any kind of authority over him. Deb walks into the kitchen, a thirty-eight year-old woman in scrubs and sneakers, overweight and tired looking, her perm growing out so that the ends are frizzy, but the first five inches from the scalp are pin straight.
“Okay, spaghettios for lunch, they can have oreos if they’re good. Howard is already napping. And, god, I hate to ask you this, but Sparticus peed in the basement again, can you clean that up?”
“Um, sure,” Agnes says, but Deb is already out the door, yelling bye and be good to them all, but only Agnes hears. It is going to be a long day.
Evergreen, Colorado is still a small town in 1986, Main Street still the center of everything, with three stores, two restaurants, an ice cream store and taffy shop, a bank, a post office, and a bar, but a little real estate office tucked in by a French restaurant all speak to the fact that Evergreen is growing. There are kids in Agnes’ ninth grade class whose parents went to fancy colleges, and who now work in Denver, at mahogany desks in tall buildings; parents who have executive lunches and drive home in a Mercedes, winding up highway 71 into the mountains. They are country club members who play golf on weekends, their children going to school in catalog clothes and the latest sneakers, trapper keepers placed tidily in their Lands End backpacks the night before.
But there are also kids in Agnes’ class who walk miles to school in ill-fitting boots or drug-store flipflops when they come at all, their clothes dirty and their hair uncut, their homes not in the town proper but hidden in the mountains in places with no name. They don’t bring a lunch and don’t have money to buy one; they skirt the guidance counselor’s questions and accept the free lunch on days when the food is good and most kids buy anyway, so it will not seem like charity. Some of their grandfathers had been miners, coming to Colorado for the rumored gold and settling in the little mining town before it had churches or schools, working odd jobs in the winter when it was too cold for sluicing or dredging. There is no mining now, so their fathers, if they have fathers, work when they can, wherever they can, but they stay. People tended to stay.
Agnes Crane’s family is somewhere in the middle. Her father went to two years of college, but left for divinity school when “the Lord told him he was needed.” She’d seen pictures; he was young and eager-looking then, his pants pressed with a crease you could see even in photos. He was an assistant pastor at a presbyterian church in Denver, got married, and was sent to Morrison, then Evergreen. He wished he’d finished regular college, he told Agnes once. He’d enjoyed learning for the sake of learning, reading Keats and Shelly because you were a student and could afford the time to do such things.
Anges’ mother had attended Community College in Denver, but one look from a blue-eyed boy who’d given an earnest, shaky sermon at her parents’ church and she’d been a goner. It was the sixties then; the boys Agnes’ mother knew at age twenty were either wearing tie dye shirts and beads, protesting the war with shaggy hair and angry faces, or off fighting in it. Or dead. Leland Crane couldn’t fight in the war because of mild scoliosis, but he’d tried. He wasn’t a coward, that was the important thing, and there he was with his earnest blue eyes and too-small blazer, talking about Peter denying Jesus, even though he loved him. We disappoint the ones we love most, he’d said, and the truth of it struck Ellen McGee as wise beyond his years; mature. She stayed for coffee cake in the fellowship hall and the rest was history.Five years later, when they were ready to give up on having children, Cassidy appeared, sky blue eyes and honey blond hair cascading down her back by the time she was three. Cassidy had a sunny disposition and a healthy amount of sass, people said now, and she could throw a pretty mean curveball in heels.
A few years later, along came Agnes, her father would say, the way any father might say about a second child. Every time, Agnes analyzes his words, his inflection, his expression, searching for something she can’t figure out. Disappointment? Regret? Something. But in his along came Agnes, there is always faint astonishment, and that is all.
But Agnes is not like Cassidy, not in any way she can discern. Cassidy has a broad face, large eyes and a turned up nose; the perfect face for a Sea Breeze commercial, Anges often thinks. Cassidy could actually be a model, she’s so pretty, but Agnes has mouse-brown hair, a small face and a beakish nose. Her nose is the great tragedy of her face, in her opinion. It protrudes out, giving the effect of leading her wherever she goes, her eyes tucked neatly beside it as if in deference. And she is fat; heavy even as a child, her pale stomach used to peek out from under her shirts in a way that is cute on toddlers, but not on six-year-olds. Not on teenagers. Now she wears longer shirts, but she hates the way her waistbands are tight, the way her legs feel like tree trunks, the way her arms seem thick all the way down. It is perplexing that she and Cassidy are related.
Walking home, Agnes takes the long way again, through Parker’s Field, which is just an empty lot owned by Dan and Judy Parker, whose house is on the adjoining lot. The Parkers own the hardware store, selling garden hoses and snow shovels to the entire town. Roughly an acre, their property backs up to the Crane’s property and slopes upward, so that after the hike from the Maynard’s house, around Bear Creek park, up Meadow Drive and then through the tall pines, past the rocks she calls the thinking rocks, she will reach her own yard at the top of a gentle hill. Looking down, she sees her own house, a small cedar A-frame with an aging but elegant back deck, the porch light on in the dusk. Her father might come out the back door at any moment with a tray of burgers to grill, his main method of cooking for them since her mother died and they’d moved to this house, this little cedar box that is not attached to the church. Three years, four months, and eleven days ago. They eat a lot of burgers now, and spaghetti with sauce from a can. It is what he knows how to do.
This is her life now: wake up, go to the Maynards, survive for seven hours, come home. If it is not a babysitting day, she might walk to town, buy enough taffy to last a few hours of reading, and go to the thinking rocks with a book, but she runs the risk of Mr. or Mrs. Parker seeing her there, coming over to talk. They don’t mind her being there, they always say she is welcome any time, but that ruins it. This is ours, but you can borrow it, is what they mean.
If Cassidy is not working at the country club, where she hands out club sandwiches and iced tea, Agnes might convince her to take them to Evergreen Drug, where they could spend an hour looking at magazines and the little ceramic animals Agnes loves. They have different ones all the time; tiny dogs and owls and horses and kittens on a little piece of cardboard that says Hagen-Reniker at the top. Agnes and Cassidy used to collect them when they were younger, making little houses out of shoeboxes, little matchbox beds lined in cotton balls. This bed is for Flopsie, and this one is for Brownie… The animals were best friends, imbued with human emotions and rescued from certain hardship to live in the shoebox palaces made by the unlikely sisters.
Agnes would still do it, truth be told. It still sounded fun to make cardboard houses, if she had anyone to do it with. She knows she is too old. But she still looks at the miniature animals when they go to the drug store–she has had her eye on the mother owl and the darling little baby, a pea-sized gray oval–and Cassidy sees but doesn’t say anything. Then they buy a coke for the way home. The problem is, Cassidy invariably sees someone she knows, or whole groups of them. It’s a small town. They call to her from the parking lot, and she waves and smiles and is drawn into them, the way a fly is drawn to an open pitcher of lemonade. Agnes has offered to walk home when that happens, to give Cassidy a way out so she can go off with her friends, though walking hometakes nearly an hour. “Are you sure?” Cassidy says, a momentary wince flashing across her face, but just barely. But before Agnes can even say, “It’s fine,” some girl squeals and shouts Cass! Come with us, we’re going to Pizza Hut! Or some boy, some good looking boy with feathered hair and tight jeans, rolled at the bottom, drives up and says Want a lift? We’re all going to Granger’s house, I can drive you back for your car later…. Cassidy usually goes. The girls and the boys both ignore Agnes completely; they are not unkind, but they fail to acknowledge her at all. No one invites her or offers to take her home first. She is three years younger, chubby, and invisible.
Still, she has twenty-five dollars in her pocket now, instead of the usual twenty that Deb gives her–Sparticus hadn’t just peed on the carpet and Deb must have known–and they don’t need her again until Thursday. Summer has just begun, and the whole day stretches out before her tomorrow. She will sleep in, as late as she wants, and she will take Corn Pops out on the back deck in her pajamas. She will read until lunch time; she is over half way through The Castle in the Attic. It is a book for little kids and losers, she knows, but she loves it. She will bake brownies, she will watch reruns of Eight Is Enough at three; she can’t decide who is cuter, Tommy or David. Tommy is closer to her age, and there is something cute about his smile, his confidence, the funny predicaments he always gets into. But he has stupid hair. David gives her little chills down into her stomach; David seems like a man. David, the actor, probably is a man. He looks old, almost as old as the dad, who is kind of a dip, but David is handsome in a way that nearly knocks the breath out of her. She could watch David forever. She feels badly about this, vaguely ashamed and gross, but she cannot help it.
After that, maybe she will offer to make dinner, maybe chicken-tortilla casserole. She knows it by heart: you mix the cream of mushroom soup and the salsa and you spread it with cooked chicken and grated cheese between the tortillas, and bake. Easy as pie. Cassidy could do a salad, and voila, an actual dinner. Maybe it wouldn’t make her dad sad this time, like the quiche Loraine had. She’d made quiche Loraine last Easter for brunch, getting the recipe out of her mom’s wooden box, and it came out pretty well but her dad saw the recipe on the counter when they were cleaning up, her mom’s handwriting, and excused himself to his room.
Walking down the hill, Agnes notices the pink sky, the unremarkable brown box of a house, the porch light already on. It isn’t so bad. Bingo, there is her dad, coming out onto the back patio, a tray of something in his hand, lifting his free hand to her in a tired wave and turning to face the charcoal grill. She feels a small wave of something wash over her and disappear as quickly as it had come; happiness? This happens sometimes, unpredictably, when she has had a good day, a day when no one has bothered her and she has something nice to look forward to: a new book, a package of snowballs or King Dons: she’ll feel a wave of what she thinks might be happiness. It makes her want to jump up and down for just a moment, or wiggle her fingers really fast, or squeal like Dawn Peterson does in the hallway at school. (“Oh my GAWD, you guys, homecoming is in TWO WEEKS!” Or, “Oh my GAWD, you guys, Matt Miller got his hair cut, did you SEE it?”) But Agnes isn’t sure if the feeling is happiness, because it is fleeting. Sometimes it lasts for a couple of hours, sometimes only a minute or two before something kills it. Happiness is something more long term, she thinks, a contentment that settles in people and lasts at least a week or two.Years, maybe. Pretty people, thin people, people with mothers.
Still, walking down the hill toward the deck, she has the happiness feeling, then she feels guilty for having it. Her mom would want her to be happy, she knows, but still. Maybe it’s too soon. Plus, she was not really happy before, either. But at least then she had both parents, and her dad wasn’t so sad all the time.
Sometimes, Agnes thinks her dad looks old, and she wonders if he looks much older now than a few years ago, but the only pictures she has of him aren’t very good so she has nothing to compare “now” to. He is kind of old, fifty-two, but she thinks maybe he looks older. But tonight she sees that he is holding a plate of not just beef patties, but onions and mushrooms too, which means he is in a good mood. He grills the mushrooms sometimes, a thing which Agnes thought would be gross but is actually good. Maybe there will be corn on the cob, and ice cream. He has changed into a cardigan sweater and the shoes he calls his house shoes; slipper type things but with a hard sole. They are old man shoes. She loves this about him, how he changes into a sweater after work just like Mister Rogers, plus old man shoes for the house and deck only, so he doesn’t get germs and dirt inside.
She knows it’s sort of lame; her dad is not cool or handsome, like some people’s dads. He does not wear jeans, for one thing, and he does not laugh easily or play catch in the yard, not that she would want to. Her dad wears corduroy pants and reads the Bible. Her dad seems detached and mildly bewildered all the time now, but not in a funny, handsome way like the dad in The Parent Trap. Brian Keith. She saw the actor’s name on the box when they rented it from Blockbuster, and she remembered it because that dad was so attractive. He was very dad-like, but also kind of sexy. She had this thought and immediately wondered what was wrong with her, that she would think a thing like that when the actor was supposed to be a dad. He was old, in his forties or fifties probably. She was such a freak, thinking a thing like that. But then Cassidy watched some–she’d had a fight with her boyfriend, who is also named Brian, and came in the living room in sweats and slippers, curled up on the sofa, and watched some of the movie–and when it was over she’d said, “That’s totally messed up, you know. To separate twins at birth like that? Not even tell them the other one exists? That’s kind of screwed up, even if the dad is a major babe.”
Then Agnes knew that she wasn’t a freak, that Cassidy had this thought too, even said it outloud. Normal, perfect Cassidy, who is unknowingly the prism that Agnes sees everything through: she, Agnes, is not only herself, chubby, hook-nosed Agnes Crane, but also the sister of Cassidy Crane. Sunny, blond Cassidy, who is so comfortable with her own feelings that she always says what she thinks, even to adults, even when no one has asked. Agnes cannot imagine this, can’t even imagine imitating it for a day. Weren’t sisters supposed to be similar? All of the sisters Agnes knows are similar, even if they aren’t very close in age. Their faces are similar even if their bodies aren’t, or they have the same build even if they have different eyes and hair. They shared mannerisms, the same kind of laugh, the same jaw line or smile. They might have different personalities, but there is a sameness about all the sisters Agnes knows; a quality that floats beneath the skin somehow, an intangible essence that is the result of having the same DNA. Or was it half the same? They just learned this in science last year, but Agnes can’t remember. Even her mom had had it with Aunt Peggy; a sameness that popped up and showed itself despite the difference in looks. But Agnes and Cassidy don’t have this, as far as Agnes can tell. Or maybe they do, but it is something you can’t see in yourself, the way people can’t hear their own accent.
“Hi,” she says, coming upon her dad. There is no corn, but the mushrooms and onions smell good.
“Hi, Bean,” he says. There is a comfortable silence between them as they watch the meat on the grates, sizzling just a little bit on the edges now, their centers still pink and raw. “All those kids wear you out?” he asks.
“A little. The baby took a long nap at least. That smells good.”
He smiles at the meat, but Agnes knows the smile is for her.
The sky is pink and orange now, the air cooler, the fireflies out in the pine trees up on the hill. Her dad is wearing his burgundy sweater with worn through places in the elbows, and rumpled corduroy pants. There is a beer in a glass on the deck railing, the foam settling. Agnes knows he allows himself this one thing only once in a while, this one thing that other men drink often, several in a row, even. Her straight-laced, rule following dad only allows it on rare occasions, just one, and always in a glass. Tonight it might be a concession to his grief, or a nod to the early summer sky. She loves him for this, too, and for his unremarkable face and squarish, dad-ish haircut, and for the way he does not even seem to notice the ugly things about her. The love swells up inside her until she can feel it like a weight, pressing her ribs outward from the inside. It is sweet and awful and exhausting, the feelings inside of her. Do other people feel this much, she wonders? Not just love for her kind, boring father, but all of it: the subtle but startling prettiness of sunset, the loathing of her own face and body battling against the irrational hope that there is something in her that is, what? Not pretty, not even good, but… worthwhile. It is almost painful, the hugeness of it, and there is no word for the feeling, if it is even a feeling. It is an unnameable thing.