We stop in Las Cruces for the night. The motels are all one story, set squarely into the yellow dirt with no hill or stream to interrupt the straight lines of the town’s platting. I watch Elise and the boys in the pool. Edward and Grace stay in their room.
The sun is setting but it’s hotter than at midday. A whimper of female passion reaches me where I sit on the steps in the shallow end with the can of Coors allotted to me from the six pack Edward bought. The voice isn’t Grace’s; it belongs to a younger girl who sounds excited as much by her own panting and crooning as by whomever is ministering to her.
My lover, Clyde, is a widower who also moved in with his daughter when both his house and mine were condemned for the new freeway. We make love on Tuesdays when Clyde’s daughter has her bowling league. Clyde watched the wrecker bite into his walls and toss chunks of plaster—still papered with the gold-flecked roses his mother once saved a whole year for—into a dumpster while he wept. When the wrecker came for my house, thrills traveled through my limbs as the metal teeth broke into the dark rooms where I’d nursed my dying parents and my brothers, one after the other. It took all day to dispense with the walls and roof and I was shocked to see the skeleton against the rose-blue evening. My husband built our house himself from a Sears kit and I realized we must have once stood together looking proudly at that frame.
Clyde wanted me to stay in Des Moines this week and sleep with him in Grace’s house. I pictured our sex—us in my single bed or on Grace’s sateen coverlet, the two of us clinging like teenagers in the aftermath. I thought about catching a glimpse of us in Grace’s vanity mirror, our sagging skin and thin hair. Such foolish pretenders at love, such ghouls.
I look east toward the cars in the parking lot and the billboard signs along the road. From behind the filter tips of an enormous pack of cigarettes, an arc of white vapor streaks up in the sky, then another. The boys don’t notice—they’re caught up in a game of tag—but Elise, floating on her back, strains her neck up as the missiles separate above her. One vanishes while the other wavers in hesitation before plunging toward the ground.
“Good Christ!” Elise shouts. She flails toward me on the steps and slips her wet legs over mine. The boys look up from their game in time to see the bright explosion backed by purple-red streaks of sunset.
“Take cover!” Hugh shouts, and dives to the bottom of the pool. A quiet rumble like distant thunder comes but nothing more. Hugh’s face breaks the surface with a look of disappointment.
“I want to fly,” Elise says, her clammy hands still around my neck. Grace was a careful child who watched her father and I with so much mistrust I sometimes had the urge to endanger her. Elise is the opposite.
“In a plane?”
Elise laughs. “No!”
She launches off my thighs like a loon and kicks away. Hugh and James start in with cannonballs, pretending to explode before they hit the water. When Grace strolls out in her flowered bathing cap, the children swarm her, telling about the exploded missile.
“That’s quite a story,” she says, with a glance at me.
“You should’ve seen it.”
“Well, maybe next time.”
She wades into the pool, clinging to the side. She doesn’t know how to swim, either. So afraid of water that I never tried after she was six years old. I learned in the Nishnabotna River, in the slow fall current with yellow leaves pasting themselves to my skin and the copper-blue scales of bigmouth buffalo flashing by. I glide off the steps and out to Elise in the deep end.