New Leaf

Elaine and Jim exchange a look–bemused, surprised, but also, it cannot be denied, proud. They have raised their children to feel comfortable asking questions such as this one. That it now demands an answer gives pause, of course, but doesn’t erase their basic belief in honesty. They’re not like their parents, Elaine thinks, with all their dark secrets and lies, ridiculous words used to hide discomfort with the body.

“An open marriage is when a couple agrees to spend time with other people,” Jim says. “They love each other and want to stay married, but they also want the opportunity to love other people.”

“Oh,” Phoebe says. “We don’t have one, do we?”

“No, sweetie,” Elaine says. “Where did you hear about this?”

“I don’t know,” Phoebe says. The slippery quality to her father’s words–and something else too, maybe the look that passed between her parents–makes it easy for her to evade. Her mother is still looking back at her, so Phoebe closes her eyes and pretends to sleep. She sees Dee in the garden, smells the dirt beneath them, the tang of green all around.


Though it seems impossible, the land flattens even more. This is Illinois, and it borders Missouri. They will sleep in their new house tonight, Jim has said. The highway cuts through cornfields on both sides. As they drive by, the fields look expansive and thick, like pieces of fabric unfurling. In the front seat, her mother is asleep, the map spread over her tanned legs.

“Dad,” Phoebe says, “I’m hungry.”

“Nora packed sandwiches for us,” her father says. “Can you reach the cooler?”

As Phoebe is reaching into the back, there is a loud snap and whoosh from outside the car, and then a hollow thudding sound.

“What was that?” Elaine says jerking out of sleep.

Jim slows and moves to pull over. Phoebe turns and sees their luggage bounce on the highway behind them, like blocks that have been tossed down. The suitcases pop open on impact; their clothes fly out, rippling into the fields in a strange and jerky dance. Phoebe can see a sweatshirt of Nat’s, just make out the yellow lettering against the blue. A pair of red pants, a striped towel. The towel twists and then drops. Shoes and underwear, shirts, her mother’s scarf sails into the field.

Jim pulls over onto the shoulder, turns the car off. He hasn’t said anything yet, and Elaine is worried he’s going to yell.

“Get out on this side,” she says to the children. “And stay away from the road, do you hear me?”

Phoebe and Nat nod, and do as they are told. Out of the car, in the thick heat, Phoebe feels wobbly. Cars roar by–thunderous and fast, almost knocking them down with their force. She and Nat slide down the gentle incline and follow their parents into the cornfield. Their clothes and belongings are scattered, some of it hangs from the corn stalks, though other pieces have landed still folded exactly as Elaine had tucked them into the suitcases. Inexplicably, her parents are laughing as they pluck clothes from the corn. Phoebe runs down a row, retrieves a shirt of her father’s. She reaches up high and shakes a stalk; a sock falls from the leaves. A semi pulls off the road, and then another and the drivers climb down.