Nonfiction | March 01, 1994
Halfway between our farm and town, on county Highway 15, the Creston place was a study in regal flatness. The fields, ten thousand acres of the most productive wheat ground, were planted in rows as straight as the land was flat. There were no weeds as far as the eye could see, not even in the road ditches, which the Crestons farmed right up to the edge. Whenever we drove past the house, we would slow down just to gape and wonder. Steep-roofed and gabled, red bricked and huge as a church, and with a miniature brick dog house to match, the mansion sat far back from the road on a twenty-acre lawn of mowed buffalo grass. At precise intervals along the drive, solitary evergreens accentuated the pale expanse. There were never any thistles wedged in their lower branches or in those of the cedar windbreak, behind which battalions of plows, sweeps, discs, harrows, rods and drills waited at loyal attention. Beyond the house, in two silver Quonsets the size of airplane hangars, lurked the biggest and shiniest combines and tractors.
In their Swiss efficiency and their wealth, the Crestons set the standard in the county, spoiling everything for everybody. They were impossible to keep up with. I suppose I’ve always laid a little too much at the Creston’s feet, blaming them for more than their share of my misery as a teenager, but then I had the misfortune of being in high school with the Creston kids.
There were two boys and a girl in the branch of the family that lived in the mansion. They were middling smart, but not particularly attractive. The boys and their cousins, whose brick house on the south edge of town was big and new, but not nearly as palatial, were short and wore glasses. It dawned on me only gradually, as we went from grade school to junior high, then on into high school, that these ordinary boys were actually aristocracy. Their money made them shine with a patina of good haircuts, madras shirts, shiny loafers without socks, white denim jeans, and cars. Brent, in my class, drove a gold Dodge Charger. His cousins, Larry and Kirk, drove matching black GTO’s.
The boys, although they weren’t outstanding athletes, dated cheerleaders. Their girlfriends bestowed authenticity on them, and vice-versa. Oh, those black cheer-leading sweaters with the white-and-gold megaphones! Those short, black skirts, their pleats lined with gold! They were the stamp of glamour, showcasing real hips, real breasts. The couples had the radiance of movie stars. The rest of us four-hundred high schoolers became satellites, orbiting around the Crestons and their attendant couples — sons and daughters of bankers, lawyers, and implement dealers.
In the summer, the Creston boys got their fathers to hire their friends, and they drove giant four-wheel-drive tractors together. Those lumbering tractors rolled over the perfectly flat wheat ground as regally as yachts in Connecticut harbors. Lilian drove one too, baffling me. As the eldest, she had stature in her family.
She was the Creston who enthralled me the most. A senior when I was a sophomore, she was celestial anyway, but being a Creston put her at the absolute center of the galaxy. She wasn’t pretty. She was robust, with a stately chest and erect carriage, a square chin, and short, tawny hair. She dated the quarterback, a boy who made all-state and whose talent is still reminisced over today. They were homecoming queen and king. She drove a Corvette.
Sometimes, at night, I dreamed I was invited to parties at the Creston mansion. I’d never been inside it, but in my dreams, it contained fireplaces and lots of gleaming wood -real hardwood floors, not the fake wood grain linoleum we’d had in the farmhouse, and a wide stairway with banisters. The living room had a vaulted ceiling, like the Lutheran church, and the windows, though clear, were leaded, the glass sparkling. Lilian’s room was the locus, the radiant inner chamber fitting a queen, not a princess. I don’t remember any physical details from that room. I don’t think there were any. There was just the knowledge that all stairs, all halls led to it, that it was at the house’s powerful center, not at all ephemeral or girlish, but solid in its splendor.
Every high school has its Crestons, those for whom adolescence is actually fun. Our aristocrats enjoyed themselves unselfconsciously, within a few feet of the rest of us, who were deeply engaged in pretending to have equal amounts of fun, in the school hallways, at the mixers, in the parking lot of Gill’s Drive-In.
The Crestons ate the giant pork tenderloin sandwiches and sipped the frosted root beers and cherry juleps just like everybody else. They weren’t stuck up. They didn’t have to be. They moved about Grainville with the immunity of royalty, knowing that humility would keep the plebeians from accosting them with awkward friendship. More likely, it was cowardice that held us back. I’m sure there were many others like me who imagined themselves equals, whose parents, we liked to think, were also rich, but just too conservative to make a more overt show of wealth.
Weekend nights, Main Street’s lights shimmered off the Creston’s gold, black, and ruby red cars. Like exotic fish, they swam the slow circuit from the fairgrounds to Gill’s Drive-In, where they circled back again. The scene rarely altered. When the Crestons passed me on Main Street, their heads didn’t even turn. I could have been my mother driving to the IGA food store. My senior year, I inherited my brother Keith’s red-and-white Fairlane, a sporty car with bucket seats and a “four on the floor”. He’d had his license taken away and was hoofing it at K-State in Manhattan, Kansas, where he was supposed to be studying botany. I thought the car, like our new house, would get me some attention, but it fetched only a glance from Brent Creston, then, after he recognized me, nothing more.
On a moonless May night in 1967, the week after my eighteenth birthday, which coincided with my graduation, a silver ’56 T-Bird convertible swam into town. I was riding in the back seat of a Volkswagen belonging to Bradley, one of my brother’s friends who was home from school at Washburn U, in Topeka. Bradley had been expecting a friend of his from Topeka to arrive that night. He honked his horn as the T-Bird approached. “There he is,” he said, then shouted, “Keith!”
My heart lurched on hearing my brother’s name. He wasn’t due home for another week. I peered hard at the T-Bird. Bradley stuck his arm out the window, drew a circle in the air with his delicate finger and pointed east. The stranger gave a savvy nod and flipped a u-ie.
Kendra turned around and winked. “He’s handsome,” she said.
“His name is Keith?” I said.
We pulled up to the curb on Center Street, and the T-Bird slid in behind us. This mysterious boy with my brother’s name stepped out. He was swarthy and manlike, a well-oiled machine of a boy right out of the nighttime town scenes in the beach movies. Bradley, scrawny, and with his thick glasses, utterly unsexy, got out and pulled the seat forward. “Keith, Julie,” he said. “Julie, Keith. Step right in.”
We bobbed down Main in the bubble. “Oh man,” Keith said, “Four hundred miles. I ought to be in California by now.” I was fascinated by his eyes. They were very light blue under dark brows. They were not lecherous, like some other older boys’ I knew, but reflected something deeper, more distant.
“Except,” Bradley said, “you’d have gone over some bumps. You know, the Rocky Mountains.”
“Then the Sierra Nevada,” I added. “It’s twelve hundred miles from here to San Francisco.”
“They’re calling this the ‘Summer of Love,'” Keith said. “I’m heading out there in the fall.”
Every issue of Look and Newsweek for the past several months had brought pictures of West Coast hippies, and I’d been watching the anti-war protests and love-ins on the network newscasts. The most exotic place I was headed for was summer school at KU. At least it was on the other end of the state, as far away as you could get from Grainville and still be in Kansas. Keith lifted a hard box pack of Kools from his pocket, opened it and took out a misshapen cigarette, like the ones our hired man Hank used to roll. “Wanna smoke a J?”
“That’s my man,” Bradley said, and his right hand shot into the back seat. He flicked his slender cigarette lighter.
“Ladies first,” Keith said, and I took the proffered joint and leaned into the flame. I smoked it like a cigarette and had the requisite coughing fit. Keith put his hand on my shoulder and asked, sincerely, “Are you okay? Don’t take so much.” He took the joint from me and demonstrated with a shallow toke, then spoke again in a pinched voice, without breathing out. “Then you hold it. See?”
Soon we were back at the T-Bird, and I was sitting in it. The top of my head tingled, exposed to the sky. Keith seemed to glide as he walked around to his door. The T-Bird glided too, right past the GTO’s. Keith offered me a Kool, but I lit up one of my own, a Winston. I held it between my thumb and finger and rested my elbow on the sill. I felt more powerful and sublime than at any previous moment in my lifetime. How far was KU from Topeka, I wondered?
The door handles, arm rests and dash knobs of Keith’s car were all missing. “I repainted the exterior, but haven’t gotten around to the interior yet,” he explained. “When I get back to Topeka I’m gonna have it sandblasted.” Brent Creston drove by with Cinda Sheehan, the blondest in that year’s crop of cheerleaders. His head turned, and he actually honked. I flicked the ash of my cigarette. Bradley had told me that Keith was rich. His family, in Minnesota, owned factories, a mansion on a bluff over the Mississippi, and vacation homes. Suddenly, I was steps above the Crestons, looking down. They were no more inspired than their featureless friends.
We just did one loop on Main, then turned onto a side street on the west end. I couldn’t believe how paltry and dismal all the little frame houses looked. Some of them had composition siding, others asbestos. Porches leaned; screens dangled from one hinge; many yards were nothing but packed dirt and sticker weeds around rusted propane tanks. I wanted to explain to Keith that this wasn’t the real town. Except maybe it was. Riding beside Keith gave me an outsider’s perspective. I was one of the lucky ones; most kids couldn’t even aspire to compete with the Crestons.
Keith’s car hit one of the dips that Grainville’s city engineers had put at intersections in order to channel rain into the gutters. “Jesus!” he said.
“We call ’em kid killers,” I said.
“They should put up warning signs. ‘Grand Canyon Ahead.'”
Suddenly the pavement of Second Street ended, and we were driving on gravel in the country. Ahead of us dangled the star-tipped stinger on the constellation Scorpio. I held onto my hair, fine and bleached blonde and in danger of tangling so badly that I’d lose half of it getting a comb through it. Up a little rise, which is all we had for hills in Grainville, Keith pulled over and turned off the car. “This a good place to stop?” he asked.
“Good as any,” I said. I opened the door and got out. I tried to shut it gently, but it banged, then when I walked over the gravel in my white sandals, I noticed the earth had lost gravity. My knees rose as if I was stepping over pillows. I leaned against the trunk and hugged myself even though it wasn’t chilly. It wasn’t yet cricket weather though, and the wheat, still green, breathed sweet coolness all around us. It smelled sweet. In the east, the airport beacon spun round like it had always done, green to white, except this time my head spun with it. Five-thousand people lived in Grainville, but tonight it was nothing more than a clump of fragile shelters huddled together beneath grain elevators and six-billion stars.
Keith got out and crossed the grader ditch. His shirt was a yellow oxford button-down, a light patch in the darkness. He returned with a stalk of wheat. “What’s this?”
It was like asking me what dirt was. “You really don’t know? It’s wheat.” I took the sprig from him, pulled the head out and bit the stem. “Taste it,” I said and handed it back.
“Mmm,” he said. “They grow a lot of that in Kansas?”
“The eastern part of the state is a lot hillier. Maybe they don’t grow so much back there.”
“Course,” he said, “I haven’t gotten out very often. All I saw for most of the last two years was the hospital compound. Cottages and lawn, lawn and cottages.” Keith leaned on the car beside me. “It was very soothing,” he said sarcastically.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“Menninger’s Psychiatric Hospital. Bradley didn’t tell you?”
“It wasn’t a bad place. Did me some good. The doctors were wise, actually. More than I can say for my parents.” Keith’s voice had taken on a note of bitterness. His forehead and high, prominent cheeks were all I could see well in the darkness.
“That sounds awful,” I said, trying to make it clear in my voice that I suspected nothing weird about him, only his parents. “Why did they do that?”
“They wanted a robot made in Dad’s image, but without any messy ideas of its own. They tried military school first. Ha! That backfired.”
“So did this work?”
He put his arm around me. His shirt felt good and confident and had its own integrity, separate from Grainville. “What do you think?” he said.
“Well, you’re not going back to Minnesota, are you?”
I scanned the lights of Grainville, which lay before us now, a flat, iron grid that was due to be history in three weeks. “And I’m not comin’ back here,” I said.
Keith gave my shoulder a squeeze. “So Bradley didn’t tell you, huh? Well, don’t worry.” He stood back from me and put his elbows out, letting his hands dangle. He crossed his eyes. “I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy,” he said, jerking his head to the side. “No siree.”
He leaned back on the car, and I kissed his cheek. It was rough, like my father’s, but who he really reminded me of was Black Rose, a pet rabbit I’d once owned. Keith’s hair was clean, smooth and black like that bunny’s, and he had a furry animal comfort about him. His presence was a compliment, as if I’d been given entry to a parallel but benevolent universe, a place where animals might actually talk, where there was no cynicism, at least none aimed at me, where a boy of means-named Keith!-not only seemed to like me, but even needed my understanding.
The distance between KU and Topeka turned out to be only forty miles. I rode on the back of Keith’s motorcycle, a 250cc Harley Sprint, or in his car, trying to control my hair. I dyed it black as soon as I went away to college, fully emulating Joan Baez now instead of Sandra Dee. We made love in his bedroom, a second floor sun porch of an old apartment in inner Topeka. It was the year of the birth control pill. You just walked into Student Health at KU and told them you wanted them, and they gave them to you, free samples.
Keith didn’t seem to notice or mind my lack of passion, probably because I faked it, along with my orgasms. The only time I’d ever felt genuinely aroused when kissing had been in my aunt’s basement family room in Boulder. The boy was a football player, wide at the shoulders, and his arms had been sinewy and strong. His hairline was already receding, but that just made him sexier somehow. His tongue was wet and more demanding than any boy’s before or since. If he had begun to undress me, I would have been helpless to stop him. It didn’t occur to me to hold out for another boy who made me feel queasy and delectably frightened.
At sixteen, I had my first sex with Chad, who drove a ’59 Impala and used too much hair oil. The main thing was to be wanted by the boy. It didn’t occur to me until many years later that desire on my part was a valid expectation. Although it seemed necessary to consider myself in love, I had actually endured sex in exchange for what felt like adulation, and to have an escort, down Main and to the movie.
I dated Keith and the poet in the freshman honors program all that summer. Then Keith left for San Francisco in September. The poet got a new, steady girlfriend, and Keith’s absence penetrated. I told my roommate, “Keith’s gone. I want Keith.” I had no address. Had he dropped clean out of my life?
I felt like I did when I was a kid and lost my dog, a German shepherd, who had a habit of killing sheep. My parents must have thought that I understood that his running away was just a necessary lie. Then one night, two weeks after he disappeared, I sat up in bed and started screaming, “I want my dog! You shot my dog!”
“Oh Julene,” Mom said. “You never even noticed he was gone. Why do you start in now?”
My attachment to Keith was no less fickle, and no less passionate. In October, there was a tap on my door. “Julie,” sang one of the girls from the dorm room next to mine. “You’ve got a phone call. Person to person.”
The receiver on the pay phone in the hallway dangled evocatively.
“How, dee.” he said.
“Oh wow, Keith! So what’s it like out there?”
“You’d love it. You’ve got to come out.”
“But I can’t.”
“Well, I can’t just go out there. My parents would flip out.”
“How about if you got married first?”
“Well,” I said, hardly daring to breathe. “That’d be different.”
Keith said, “So let’s do it, then.”
A week later a letter came requesting my sizes, head to foot, then two weeks after that, a large package arrived with an envelope attached that said “READ ME FIRST.” I was to get completely naked, then unwrap a series of numbered packages and put on their contents. (1) hot pink hoop earrings, (2) a pair of black bikini underwear, (3) pink tights, (4) a lacy black padded bra, (5) a hot pink rayon mini-length shift, (6) a silver net overdress, (7) silver shoes, (8) a pink glass and silver necklace, (9) a large diamond set in “white” gold.
To their credit, my parents did try to stop me. They phoned me prior to Thanksgiving vacation and insisted I come home. I started in a snow storm, but stopped near Topeka, when the visibility began getting bad. I called them from a gas station. Mom told me that they suspected Keith was “on dope.”
That was the whole reason — not that I was too young, not that other men would come along, not that I should value myself more. I told her that a friend of Keith’s had died from an overdose, and he wouldn’t touch the stuff. I didn’t bother to differentiate between grass, the psychedelics and heroin. I knew my mother was more comfortable not hearing about such things, or knowing that I was aware of the distinctions between them.
My dad got on the phone. “Graduate first,” he said. “You never know what might happen.”
“That’s four years, Dad! I can’t wait that long.” I wiggled my ring finger. The sparkle was transcendent, promising delivery from these low-class surroundings–the muddy-glassed phone booth, the red-eared attendant wearing farmer’s insulated coveralls who was running the squeegee over my Fairlane’s windshield. The diamond’s glamour was weightless but of equal mass, somehow, to my father. It made us equals. “Besides, I’ll finish anyway, in California.”
“Sure you will,” he said, disgusted. He didn’t waste any more of his breath on me. I’d already turned down a boy from a neighboring town, whom Dad had figured on having take over the farm. One guy who didn’t farm was the same as the next one to Dad.
At Thanksgiving, Keith greeted me at the airport in St. Paul. Wearing an amber wool plaid jacket and pleated skirt, its hem line mid-thigh over yellow tights, I rode beside him in the plush interior of his mother’s Continental. His father, Keith told me, owned a matching car. Then we were entering the doorway of a rectangular three-story mansion, and four women swooped forward to greet us. Two were maids; one was Keith’s grandmother, “Nana”; and the most imposing one of all was his mother, a buxom, heavily made-up woman in an aqua suit dress and spike-heeled matching shoes. She was short even in these, but still very formidable. She kissed me, a stranger. We didn’t hug in my family, let alone kiss.
I got married for money, at eighteen–too young to be judged harshly for it, too young to know any better. Parents can’t win. It was probably their frugality that made me worship money so. At the same time I identified with the Sixties protesters, I longed to buy my hip-huggers and jean jackets from Cunningham’s, Grainville’s swank clothing store, instead of J.C. Penney’s, across the street. In my soul, I wanted current fashion, plush comfort and security. I wanted Lilian Creston’s bedroom. In St. Paul, glades of old trees swelled and dipped over the hills, an occasional spire of a Catholic college or cathedral rising above them. I relished the old brick, the slate roofs, and, in Keith’s house, carpeting so thick it showed our footprints. There were poodles–live ones as well as brass replicas. Marble night stands. Firm mattresses in tall beds. Crystal ashtrays. A cherry wood study with dark books. A large, gleaming desk with a leather blotter. A regulation pool table, in the den, under, of course, a Tiffany shade. Five bathrooms with brass and porcelain faucets, white clay tile and thick, monogrammed towels. Billowing gray winter trees and forest pine elegance out every window. Splendor. Permanence. Wealth.
Our Thanksgiving visit proceeded in warm rounds of embraces from maids, ex-nannies, and female relatives; brief encounters with Keith’s aloof businessman father, tall and balding and swank; furtive joints with Keith’s brother and girlfriend in the out-of-use third story; a formal dinner where our engagement was announced and toasted. The flatware and wine goblets were gold plated, robustly elegant, like the huge turkey. Keith was paid the great honor of carving, which he did with aplomb, but I sensed somehow unsatisfactorily. There was an air in the house of disappointment in this son who never lived up to expectations. I realized that I was his means of escape as well.
He confided in me, telling me that any money from his parents would come with strings. It would be better if we made it on our own in San Francisco. This decision seemed honorable and righteous, and I agreed enthusiastically. Deep down, I was elated to be marrying into wealth.
I thought of myself as a radical, but I was really a pretty conventional thinker. Dreamer might be a better word. Girl. I was a conventional girl. This was going to mean happiness ever after. I was escaping the dullness of my life up until then, as well as my social failure, and the limiting notions of my parents, who had always held only three options open to me: nursing, teaching, or marrying a farmer. In marrying Keith, I could have security, but none of the drab circumstances that my father had always insisted must accompany it.
I had to suppress every doubt, even if enormous and obvious. There was that argument we had in January, for instance, one week before our wedding.
We were in my parents’ basement, sitting on the tan vinyl quilted couch, the ugliest, most uncomfortable couch in the world. Keith was trying to explain the concept of free love. “Let me demonstrate,” he said. He reached above his head and switched off the pole lamp. “It’s like electricity.” He turned the lamp on again. “When I open the switch, electricity flows out to the light and brightens the whole room. Love is like that. It’s either on or off. When it’s on, it flows. The switch is open in San Francisco.”
“Oh Keith,” I complained, unable to argue in the vacuum of his logic.
He took hold of my hands. “Julie, I wouldn’t hurt you, believe me. But you’ll want this too, once you’re out there. You’ll see. Love is free, if it’s real. It doesn’t make sense to say you love one person. It’s like the light.”
I shrieked in exasperation and, ripping my hands out of his, got up and backed away, clutching my elbows and bending forward to shout at him. “How can you say that? How can you say you love me, that you want to marry me, and now tell me this? How can you?”
My father appeared, form the doorway to the stairs. His thick eyebrows were a V, like the inverted cone of a volcano, his finger a caveman’s spear as he pointed at Keith. “You let up on that girl.”
I pointed back at him. “Get out!” I screamed, my voice cracking with volume. “This is our business!”
Keith stood up and put his hand on my shoulder. “Julie,” he said, quieting me. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said to my dad.
“It’s none of his business,” I said, and turning my ferocity on Dad again, shouted, “Let us alone!”
These were the messes I’d never seen before in this household. Mom and Dad fighting. I said to myself, Dad knows nothing, absolutely nothing. He left silently and impotently, his brown eyes clouding with their third big defeat. First my brothers refused to farm, rejecting him in the process, and now I was gone as well.
I sobbed on Keith’s shoulder. “It’s none of his business,” I said.
“He’s your father,” Keith said.
“I don’t care.”
“You should care. He loves you.”
“So do you, you say.”
Keith lifted wet strands of my hair and placed them behind my ears. “When you get out there, you’ll see what I mean.”
“Just promise me,” I begged, through tearful heaves. “You won’t do it unless I agree.”
“You know, have . . . go to bed with someone else.”
I backed up and looked in his eyes, a foreigner’s blue, magnetic. “And I’m more important to you than anything.”
He squeezed me reassuringly. “You know it.”
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