Two days ago Shelia’s husband, Cleveland, went missing. The brown loafers size ten-and-a-half that he wore to work before he got sick sat in the foyer, the left shoe slightly ahead of the right. His gray drawstring sweatpants were lying in the hallway and his sweatshirt was out on the front porch, draped over the rocking chair. The glass with the chipped rim stood on the kitchen table, pulp from the orange juice he drank the morning he went missing dried and glued to the inside.
Shelia sat in Cleveland’s over-sized reading chair, sinking into the soft cushions. She massaged her bunions, wincing at the pressure but relaxing into the relief from the sharp pain. She had spent the last five hours walking through the corn fields, calling Cleveland’s name over and over again. The struggle past the corn stalks reminded her of the time she lost her cat, Trinket, during a thunderstorm when she was seven. She had spent two days searching the barns and fields around her parent’s house. It was on day three that she found Trinket curled under her porch. The first place that she looked for Cleveland was under their porch, there was a hole in the lattice siding after all, but only the wide yellow eyes of a raccoon stared back.
She blamed herself for not closing their front door and leaving the screen door unlocked. There was a breeze coming in that day and after spending most of her time cooped up in a stuffy house while the temperatures continued to rise to nearly one hundred degrees with no rain in sight, Shelia wanted to feel the air flow through the rooms. She thought that it would be good for Cleveland to smell the horse manure from the barn across the street, perhaps it would remind him of his childhood on the farm and draw out his memories, which were fading and becoming over-exposed photographs. There were times when he would yell and hit Shelia, thinking she was a burglar. Other days he called her, “Mother” but not once had he remembered her as his wife. During these moments of outburst, Shelia imagined pushing Cleveland hard to the ground, tying him up with rope, and locking him in the closet. But then spittle would run from his mouth, his pants would become wet with pee, and she’d come back to herself.
The doctor had warned Shelia of the risks and hardships of living with an Alzheimer’s patient, but what choice did Shelia have? Cleveland, she found out after the bank teller told her there was only $400 left over after paying the doctor’s bills, had used most of their money to invest in a new business venture. The checks were being written to Martin Perkins, his cousin. Shelia never cared for Martin or the quick money ideas he came up with. The schemes always failed and left his investors short thousands of dollars, which they never saw again. There was no other option but to bring him home. The past eight months had been the longest of her life.
Through the screen door came the chirpchirp of the crickets and the hum of the cicadas; in the summer the bugs were so loud that it was almost deafening. Shelia’s eyes drifted to the door. Her throat tightened at the thought of spending another night alone in the empty old house. She considered calling her neighbor, Patty, and asking her to sleep over but it felt childish. Besides, Patty had her own husband who needed her.
Shelia stood and hugged herself despite the warm temperature outside. Cleveland couldn’t stand the heat so they had window air conditioning units in every room. Shelia didn’t turn them off that night and left the screen door unlocked and the porch light on. She nestled beneath the covers in Cleveland’s room, and breathed in the aftershave scent on his pillow.
The next morning Shelia awoke at 5:30, stretched, and yawned as her bones creaked. It wasn’t until her feet touched the rough carpet instead of her fuzzy, soft pink slippers that she remembered there was no Cleveland to make breakfast for. She padded down the hallway in her nightgown past framed pictures of Cleveland as a heavy boy standing beside his prize winning bulls that he won blue ribbons for at the State Fair. It hurt her to walk down the hallway, to see the empty space at the end where photos of their son, Theodore, had once been but were now in a box.
She passed the second bedroom on the right and still expected to hear music coming from behind the door. It had been twenty years since Theodore lived in that room and it was now Cleveland’s second office. A lump rose in her throat as she thought of Theodore, young with tussled brown hair and his father’s blue challenging eyes. The problem was genetics, they were too much alike and now they had both run away.
Lying on the rocking chair in Shelia’s room was her navy blue bathrobe. Cleveland liked Shelia to be at least half-way decent in the mornings in case she needed to answer the door.
Despite running the air conditioning units, the air was sticky with humidity. Shelia scowled at the bathrobe, turned and went down stairs. For the first time in years, she felt lighter without the extra weight. At the bottom of the steps she paused, did a quick twirl, and giggled. The light sound surprised her. Cleveland’s shoes were still sitting in the hallway; Shelia composed herself, this was not how a woman who had just lost her husband was supposed to act.
Inside of the refrigerator packets of bacon, ham, a carton of orange juice, a container of eggs, and grapefruit filled the shelves. Instinctively she reached for the grapefruit and then paused. She deserved to treat herself after all she had gone through. The water in the bathroom upstairs didn’t run as she cracked and fried two eggs and three slices of bacon, the stairs didn’t groan with the weight of footsteps when she poured a glass of orange juice, and Cleveland didn’t enter the kitchen in a business suit when she put the food on a plate. She moved to put the plate on the dining room table in Cleveland’s spot, the chair facing the window, but decided she wanted a better view.
Outside the patio furniture was damp with dew. As she ate breakfast, which was much more filling than a measly grapefruit, she looked out onto the fog that hovered over the cornfields. Dark gray-and-blue clouds stretched across the sky. Shelia thought of all the farmers who were standing in their fields, looking up, praying for rain. It was harvest season and the corn was supposed to be knee high, but the draught kept the stalks as short, shriveled stumps.
Shelia thought of her father who had been a farmer and her mother who had taken care of the house and the horses and hens. As a child, she spent days trailing behind her mother, standing on a foot stool as she watched her bake bread, jar and can produce for the winter, collect the eggs from the hens, feed the horses. When Shelia became big enough she began doing the outdoor chores on her own, often forsaking school work for grooming the three horses. Shelia’s mother encouraged her studies, collected brochures from neighboring colleges to show Shelia, but her love was for the farm. Her father couldn’t hide his pleasure at his daughter’s interest and began to show her how to manage the business. But then on Shelia’s eighteenth birthday when she was at the State Fair admiring horses, a thirty-year-old man named Cleveland winked at her. Against her parents’ wishes they went steady and married six months later. Cleveland was a vacuum salesman at the time and moved them to Des Moines where there were more clients.
It took them six hours to reach the house that he bought without consulting her first. It had four bedrooms, a large living room and kitchen, but only a small amount of land. The cornfields that lined their yard weren’t even theirs. Shelia expected to fill the rooms with children but for the first two years of their marriage Cleveland kept Shelia busy with planning parties, entertaining his clients, scheduling his meetings, showing up at events dressed in uncomfortable evening gowns, making his meals and doing his laundry. Her pregnancy hadn’t been planned and when she told Cleveland the news, he seemed irritated instead of happy.
Shelia hoped their baby boy, Theodore, would fill the house with laughter and joy of a family, but instead there were sixteen years of arguments, slamming doors, and finally a thrown punch between father and son. Guilt and anger crept through Shelia as she remembered the night when she hadn’t done anything, when she let Theodore slip away.
Shelia fiddled with the ring around her finger, twirled it until it was at the tip of her nail. It didn’t feel as strange as she thought it would not to have the ring there. The phone rang. Shelia moved the ring back down her finger and got dressed before Patty had time to come over to investigate why Shelia wasn’t answering her call.
The State Fair Grounds were crowded with parents, running children, teenagers walking hand-in-hand. The thick smell of manure, the sweet smell of hay, the greasy smell of fried dough and hot dogs filled the air. Bells rang at the game booths as lucky patrons won stuffed animal prizes. Shelia meandered through the crowd, relaxing into the jostling flow. A group of tan Clydesdale horses clomped by pulling a cart; Shelia admired the horses’ elegant poised nature, the way they pranced when they lifted their hooves, their heads held high, as if they knew that everyone was stopping to stare at them. The sleek coats gleamed in the sun. Shelia looked down at her tan shorts, white top, and felt plain, the colors washed out her pale skin.
At first, Shelia stared at the back of peoples’ heads, glanced at their profiles, she couldn’t very well call out Cleveland’s name like he was a lost dog. In hindsight, she probably should have brought flyers but the cost to print them, especially in color, was too high. What money she had was for groceries and bills.
The sun became too hot, causing Shelia to feel light headed, so she bought a lemonade, sipping the tangy sugary juice, letting it linger over her tongue, and sought shade in the horse barn. The loud of hum of people grew muffled and the smell of greasy fat was replaced with sweet hay. Snorts and hoof stomping came from behind the stalls. Ropes and empty feed bags hung from hooks. Standing on her tippy toes Shelia peered into one of the horse stalls at a sleek brown mare who pressed her nose against the bars, opening her mouth for an apple. Shelia looked both ways, grabbed some hay from the ground, and fed it to the horse. She clucked her tongue and touched the soft, velvety hair.
Shelia thought of her father who would lift her up to see the horses over the stall doors, and then of Theodore, who she did the same with when he was a young boy. The State Fair was her favorite time of year because it was the only time Theodore and Cleveland got along. Trapped in a state of nostalgia, Cleveland acted like a child all day, showering Theodore with stuffed animals won at game booths and mounds of popcorn and cotton candy. For sixteen years they attended the State Fair as a family until the night that ended the tradition.
Cleveland, Theodore, and Shelia were sitting at the dinner table, mashed potatoes, steak, and green beans stacked on the plates. She remembered thinking that it smelled of Thanksgiving. The State Fair was only a few days away and when Theodore talked about how excited he was to go, Cleveland interrupted him. He declared that there would be no State Fair that year because he had to travel to Kansas for a sales convention and wanted Theodore to go with him. It was time for him to learn the salesman trade. Theodore refused, told Cleveland that he would rather die than spend four days alone with his father. Just as the words left Theodore’s mouth Cleveland rose and punched Theodore so hard in the face that he fell to the floor. His father stood over him, his shoe pressed to his throat, making him gag. Shelia sprang out of her chair, yelling and crying as she tried to pull Cleveland off but he pushed her away. How does death feel now? Cleveland had said to a choking Theodore.
Shelia ran at Cleveland again, tugged on his arm pleading for him to stop. Just when she thought that Theodore was going to die, Cleveland released his shoe, grabbed her by the wrists, pushed her against the wall, and told her not to interfere in their business again. He stood tall, his chest pushed out, his face red, his nostrils flaring much like the prized bulls he had raised as a child, she thought in that moment. Theodore got to his knees, gasping for air, clutching his throat. He looked up at Shelia; his eyes were wide and angry, like Cleveland’s, like a bull’s about to charge.
“You!” he shouted at her. “You just stand there. Why do you let him push you around?” Theodore coughed and got to his feet. It was then Shelia realized how tall he was, how much he had grown, where had her little boy, her little shadow gone? “I was always there for you,” he said his voice catching. “How many times did I hug you, did I sit with you when you cried? Why can’t you do that for me?”
Shelia’s heart raced and she reached out a shaking hand to Theodore but Cleveland pinned it back against the wall. She should have fought him then, she should have torn her arm away and went to Theodore’s side but the strength of Cleveland’s fingers wrapped around her wrist, the fear of what she would do without Cleveland, where she would go and how she would keep her and Theodore fed, kept her rooted to the other side of the room. At least here Theodore had a roof, had a bed. Shelia could endure all of the belittling comments, the orders, the looks Cleveland gave other women when they were in restaurants, the fake smiles they displayed together at parties, if it meant keeping Theodore safe, keeping him close.
Theodore shook his head, looked at Shelia for the first time with pity and disgust. He ran his hand through his hair, turned, and walked up the stairs.
“You stay up there, you hear me? Don’t come back down until you realize what a disrespectful brat you are! I’ve given you everything, hear? Everything!” Cleveland yelled. He turned and barked at Shelia, “Aren’t you going to clean up this mess?” He walked into the living room, his footsteps so heavy that the house shook, and turned on the radio.
Theodore came down the stairs with a duffle bag, walked out the front door without so much as a glance back at Shelia. From the kitchen, she heard the slam of his pickup truck, the start of the engine, and the tires rumbling down the driveway. As she stood with her hands in the wet soapy sink scrubbing the knives, she told herself that Theodore would be back, he wouldn’t leave her alone with the bull. She found out later, from Theodore’s best friend that he wound up in Utah. Shelia sent letters to the address she was given but received none in return. Eventually, they were returned from the post office, he was no longer living at that address.
The memory caused Shelia’s throat to tighten, her stomach churned, and her pulse quickened. She ran from the horse stalls into the building next door, not realizing where she was going. People jostled past Shelia making their way to bleachers that surrounded a ring. A loud bell sounded and a bull charged from a holding pen into the ring with a cowboy on his back. Shelia’s throat tightened as she saw the bull’s wide, crazed eyes, its mouth open in a snarl, and the frenzied way it arched its back, jumping into the air, trying to throw the rider. The cowboy held on with one hand, his body somehow moving with the bull’s movements. He didn’t seem afraid of the bull, instead he hooted and waved his hat in the air. Shelia couldn’t understand how he wasn’t scared of the dangerous animal that could break his back. After eight seconds the buzzer sounded, the crowd cheered, and the bull was lead away.
“Want to give it a shot?” someone asked Shelia. She turned around, a man in a t-shirt that said Bradley’s BBQ stood with his arms folded, a toothpick hung from the corner of his mouth. He nodded his head toward a mechanical bull Shelia hadn’t noticed before. “Only a dollar.” Shelia looked at the bull with apprehension then thought of the fearless cowboy. She pressed a sweaty dollar bill into his hand, walked up to the mechanical bull, and he helped lift her onto its back. The metal was cold against her skin. “All you gotta do is hang on for eight seconds. Raise your arm, that’s right, now hang on with the other. Ready on the count of three.”
Her knuckles turned white from gripping the bar across the bull’s back; there was hard a jerk and the bull leapt to life. The world spun in jolting bursts as she was thrown forward, backward, side to side. The sweat from her palm made her hand slide against the bar but she gripped it tighter, dug her knees into the side of the bull. Her heart pounded and for a moment, her free arm almost gripped the bar, but she jerked it back up again. The bull stopped and she looked around at the still world, the small crowd that had gathered to watch, and was surprised that she had stayed on. She lifted her head high, she had defeated the bull.
On her way home Shelia passed Cluckin Chicken; the bright yellow light from a neon sign in the shape of a chicken, the greasy smell of the fried food wafting from the vents, drifted into her open car window. She pulled into the drive through lane and did something that Cleveland never let them do—she ordered fast food instead of cooking dinner. Beneath the cloudless, night sky Shelia sat on the hood of her car, leaning against the windshield, savoring the salty, greasy burger. Ketchup dripped down her chin onto her pants. Beside her, a group of teenagers stood around their car, listening to music, drinking milkshakes.
When she got home that night she picked up Cleveland’s clothes on the porch, put his shoes in the closet, cleaned the empty orange juice glass, turned off the air conditioners, and opened the windows. She went into her bedroom, pulled a box from beneath the bed, and looked at photos of Theodore.
The loud ringing of the telephone awoke Shelia at eight o’clock in the morning. Old photos, children’s drawings, and mother’s day cards were spread around her on the bed. Half asleep, Shelia picked up the receiver. It was Officer Bryant telling her that Cleveland was found in a town called Clifton sixty miles away, sleeping naked in a hay stack. A farmer discovered him when he went into the barn that morning. Cleveland was at the Clifton station now, waiting for Shelia. She thanked Officer Bryant and when they hung up panic welled inside of Shelia. She jumped from the bed, grabbed a small suitcase, threw the photos of Theodore and some of her clothes into it, and closed the lid. She locked the house door this time, got into her car, and instead of driving to Clifton, she went straight for Utah.