Sissy isn’t a small-town girl at heart—only through a steady refusal of circumstances, luck and love, to align themselves her way. Two years ago, Sissy’s mother left Iowa with her boyfriend for L.A.; now they manage a trailer park of unpaved lanes and old palms whose lowest branches are dead, dry fans. Sissy’s father sells the big Rain Cats, irrigation sprinklers that pivot around fields cut circular to accommodate them, the air above the pipes stunned with heat, the winter wheat below abruptly glistening, so that a long shadow seems towed by the sprinklers across a solid light-tan plane. Immediately below the pipes is the dividing line, drawn slowly forward, between drenched and parched, with the crossed wheat turning dark in a sharp stretch and throwing off a thin, prismatic spume, or entire moving rainbows no bigger than birds’ wings. Someday, Rafer says in his sales pitch, all of this will be run by computers, and in a far field the linked arms of Rain Cats will spring to life whether anyone is there to see them or not.
Just after Sissy’s junior year of high school. Rain Cat relocated Rafer to Wheaton, Colorado, and paid for the Mayflower van. Sissy left a boyfriend Rafer didn’t know about; Rafer left a bowling-alley waitress Sissy did. His new territory is vast and marginal, dusty fields of wheat, alfalfa, soybeans, and sugar beets worked by wetbacks and owned by farmers who are barely making it and already have too much capital tied up in obsolete heavy equipment—the kind of men, Rafer says, who shyly tap toothpicks from the plastic dispenser beside the cash register when they finally pay for the cup of coffee they nursed all morning long, and whose own fathers were so poor they cut the eyes from potatoes, planted the eyes, and boiled the potatoes to feed their families. All spring in Wheaton, where she knows no one and nobody seems to be under forty anyway. Sissy has been lonely; all spring Rafer has been on the road. Once when she thought she was cracking up, he warned her long-distance, “Sissy, it’s a good thing I’m gone. If I wasn’t gone, would I be making sales?” More gently, “Don’t you know I go through this all week because I want a future for you?” Gentlest of all, “You’re not going to grow up into one of those women who thinks the world owes them a living.”
“Daddy, don’t talk like that.” Because she knew he meant her mother.
“We’re in this together, aren’t we? You just want to keep your head. I know that I can count on you.”
Rafer says she shouldn’t live for the weekends, but on Saturday nights they eat steak in a restaurant and he tells her about his week. Sunday mornings they take Joe, Rafer’s dog, and his old .22, and drive out to one of the arroyos where a million shattered bottles lie, and Rafer steadies her arm while she shoots chips of glass, and sometimes dimes, from the eroded wall. She likes the way the dust floats up and smokes away. When they come home her hair is always lighter, her shoulders sunburned, and she cooks dinner for them both. Joe licks Rafer’s face to wake him up, weekend mornings, and Rafer lifts Joe’s Hoppy ear and sings into it as if it’s a microphone, until Joe growls.
Sissy stops her bicycle at a windmill far out in the grasslands— stops as if windmill water, scummed with algae the dead land-locked green of pool-table felt, has some faint connection to clear Rain Cat water; stops as if Rafer, wherever he is, can feel her stopping. Though there seems to be no wind, the wind-mill blades keep turning, and blades of shadow switch with light on Sissy’s face. The heat pausing on her cheek is pleasant, though she’s almost sure the part in her hair is burning, her forehead and nose flecking with more ugly sharp freckles. Now that she’s resting, the gloss of sweat, absent throughout the long bike ride, pricks her shaved armpits—a feeling like the beginning of a rash. A mourning dove lands on the holding tank’s rim, peers at Sissy, fails to see her, and flutters to the ground, which is rutted by thousands of sunbaked cattle tracks, hoping to find a track that still cradles an inch of sour water. It used to puzzle her that the birds wouldn’t bathe in the holding tank, but then she figured it out—it is impossible for a dove to drown in a cattle track.
She tips her bicycle up and walks it back to the highway, studying low bluffs that fade backward into a line of identically eroded, shades-paler bluffs; under the shadows of small moving clouds, the bluffs seem to be folding and unfolding. Between her and them lie a hundred miles that are nothing bur empty. After that a thousand miles, and after that L.A. Ah, she hates it here. Hates it. From dry weeds drawn into the bicycle spokes, a hail of grasshoppers patters against her bare legs. When their wings flick open, oval dapples form glaring eyes precise down to the fawn iris and darker pupil. The eyes wink out as the grasshoppers fasten again onto trembling grass, and Sissy looks behind her at the bicycle’s snaking track. All that way for what? For nothing.