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Authors: Peter Hedges

An Ocean in Iowa

BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
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An Ocean in Iowa 

Peter Hedges

An Ocean in Iowa
Copyright © 1998, 2014 by Peter Hedges
Cover art, special contents, and electronic edition © 2014 by RosettaBooks LLC

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Cover design by Brehanna Ramirez
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795343186

Special Thanks
The Millay Colony for the Arts, Austerlitz, NY
The Manhattan Class Company
Dr. Phyllis Staplin and the students and teachers at Fairmeadows Elementary School in West Des Moines, Iowa
And the many friends who kindly read the early drafts of this book, with an especially big heap of thanks to Raymond Shelton.

For Marc H. Glick


What Scotty Said

Almost Heaven

Look at Scotty Grow

A Good Boy


Other Mothers

The Wrong Crowd

What Was Learned


When he was four or thereabouts, Scotty Ocean liked to stand on the piano bench while his mother, a painter of abstracts, played the only song she knew.

She practiced it daily, her eyes closed, a Salem cigarette burning in the nearby ashtray.

For Scotty there was no place better to be than at her side, where he might tug at her blouse or whisper in her ear or pound the black keys with his fists. But it hardly mattered what he did because when Joan Ocean played her song, everything—even Scotty—disappeared.

One day he said something that brought her to a stop.

She made him say it again. This time she watched closely as his pink lips shaped the sounds. She would never forget it. Later it would haunt her: his eyes, his voice, and the words, spoken simply…

“Seven is going to be my year.”



In the summer of 1969, if you had asked the then six-year-old Scotty Ocean what a judge actually did, he couldn’t have told you—and why his parents never hugged or kissed, he would have been at a loss—and why his sisters kept whispering, giggling about girl matters, he would’ve had no idea. Scotty Ocean was not in possession of all the facts.

But he knew some things. He knew where he came from. He knew his mother had made him. In her art studio. The same way she made paintings and sculptures.

“You made me, right?”

Joan always nodded a gentle yes.

“But just you.”

Joan would try to include the Judge but Scotty would cover his ears and scrunch his face, insisting—“Only you made me.”

Soon Joan stopped trying to tell him otherwise.

For Scotty, the particulars always changed. When his
mother experimented with sculpting marble, he was convinced that he, too, had been chiseled, and the unused parts of him had fallen to the floor like the slivers and chunks in the corner of Joan’s studio. When she worked at her pottery wheel, he watched the way she would wet her fingers and stick a thumb in the spinning lump of clay—suddenly a shape. He would shout over the blaring radio, “This is how you made me.”

Joan didn’t bother to correct him. Scotty’s beliefs were creative and she was the featured player in his wanderings—this charmed her, and why, she thought, why, as she popped open the next can of beer, why tell him the facts. He had his whole life to live with the facts.


The Judge had been standing at the top of the stairs, calling down to his wife for some time. “Joan,” he said. “Come here.”

Joan pretended she hadn’t heard him.

“Honey,” the Judge pleaded.

Joan called back, “We’re in the middle of dishes.”

Claire, their older daughter, helped clear the table while Maggie played on the kitchen floor.

“Honey, come here,” the Judge begged. “It’ll only take a minute.”

Joan looked at her daughters both occupied and the dishes half washed. Then she turned and headed out of the kitchen. She went because in West Glen, Iowa, in 1961, when called, wives went.

“What is it?” Joan asked, climbing the stairs.

Judge Ocean did not answer.

“What do you want?” She looked for him in the bathroom. She walked into their bedroom. “Walter?” He was nowhere to be found. “This is no time for games.” She sensed something behind her moving, so she turned in time to see the linen closet door swing open, only to find her husband standing in front of her, naked and erect.

She removed her apron and bent over their bed. While he moved above her, she thought about the flowers she would plant the coming spring.

When he finished, the Judge, gasping for breath, leaned over and stuck his tongue in her ear. “Don’t,” she said, and pulled up her underwear.

That night Joan sat on the living room sofa. In the kitchen, the Judge made popcorn using a pressure cooker. The sound of kernels popping had the girls jumping up and down. “Mommy,” they shrieked. “What are we!”

Joan drew in on her cigarette and said nothing.

“We’re popcorn!”

The girls slowed their dancing, then stopped. They studied their mother, who stared blankly at the turned-off TV, cigarette smoke leaking out her mouth.

Claire asked, “Mommy, what is it?”

“Nothing, honey.”

But it was hardly nothing. She knew it; she felt it deep inside.

She had conceived.

When the Judge rounded the corner with his nightly bowl full, his girls leapt toward him, their little hands reaching up for the corn. With a girl on either side, he settled into the sofa. He lifted up the saltshaker. “Let me,” the girls squealed. As each daughter took their turn, Joan Ocean started to cry.


Her first pregnancies had been remarkable experiences. In 1957, after reading the book
Childbirth Without Fear
, Joan informed her obstetrician, Dr. Charles Vernon, exactly how she intended her baby to be born. Dr. Vernon argued with her. He believed Joan was making a mistake. But in thirty years of delivering babies, he’d rarely met a woman so determined.

When it came time, Joan requested three pillows and refused to lie down and submit to the common medical practices of the day. With proper breathing and an unshakable belief that childbirth couldn’t hurt too much, that for millions of years women had been giving birth, and that she was just another, a link in a long line, she gave birth to Claire the “natural” way in an eleven-hour period. Nurses who had been skeptical looked at her with a much deserved respect.

“Your wife is unusual,” Dr. Vernon later told the Judge.

Maggie’s birth proved even easier, done in eight and a half hours, and it confirmed Joan’s thought that there was nothing nicer than giving birth.

But Scotty’s labor would be different.

Joan, all sweaty and exhausted, shouted and moaned—endless contractions—she was to endure hours of pain.

“The little brat doesn’t want to come out.”

Dr. Vernon said, “You know, Joan, this doesn’t have to hurt so much.”

She shook her head, determined, her hands clenching the steel sides of her hospital bed.

“You know we can kill the pain….”


Joan held out. She had gone into labor on July 10, 1962,
and Scotty was delivered just after midnight on the twelfth. Twenty-nine hours—it was as if Scotty didn’t want to be born.

Perhaps he knew he wasn’t welcome, Joan told herself. Between contractions she vowed to work extra hard to like her child. Fortunately her guilt for wanting a miscarriage, her self-hate for wishing this baby had never existed, evaporated the first moment Scotty was set on her chest and went for her breast and missed.

“He’ll learn,” she told the Judge, who wiped her sweaty face with his handkerchief.

“Of course,” he replied.

On the drive home from the hospital, the Judge remarked, “The doctor said you have an unbelievably high tolerance for pain.”

The Judge turned onto their street.

“I thought you should know that’s what he said. Very few people could take what you withstood. He was impressed.”

Joan forced a smile for her husband. She knew he was proud of how she delivered.

The girls stood with Joan’s parents on the porch. A sign hung on the garage door, painted in bright red and blue:

Later that afternoon, the Judge painted on a
, explaining to the girls who watched, “Your grandfather, my father, was also named Scott. So we’ll call your brother Scotty. Scott
.” Then the Judge went back inside, and the girls practiced saying their little brother’s name.

Joan received visitors for most of that afternoon. Neighbors and friends stopped over. The Judge’s secretary came with balloons. All guests were served pink lemonade and cookies compliments of Joan’s parents.

While the Judge told the entire birth experience from his perspective (which consisted of his pacing the halls and napping in the waiting room), Joan sat at the kitchen table. The noise of children playing and the Judge talking in the living room blurred for her, and she looked down at her boy asleep in her arms, his crooked face, tiny eyes, his lips and nose so little.

In the living room, the consensus among the guests was that Scotty’s looks favored his father, but the Judge was quick to disagree: “He doesn’t look a thing like me. He looks like an hors d’oeuvre.”

Hearing this, Joan thought the following, and pledged it to herself, as both prayer and promise: You will be loved, Scotty Ocean.

And while the guests laughed at the Judge’s remark, Joan leaned over and softly whispered to her newborn son, “You will be loved.”


On his last day as six, Scotty tagged along with his mother as she ran an afternoon of errands.

At Kmart, he stuck his hand in the back pocket of her blue jeans and gripped tight. They came to a stop at the party supply section and picked out paper plates, party hats, and noisemakers.

At the cash register, while his mom paid with a personal check, Scotty wandered off, and Joan was forced to look for him, checking Toys, Pets, and Sporting Goods. When she finally found him in Appliances, he was standing, mouth open
in awe, staring at images of astronauts practicing weightlessness at their training facility. Sixteen television screens, different sizes with various hues and tints, but the same image—these were the astronauts of Apollo 11.


Scotty didn’t answer. He imagined he was bouncing around in the aisles of Kmart, floating like the astronauts in their simulation tank.


He turned to his mother and waved in slow motion.

“Let’s go,” Joan said.


At Kenny Rayburn’s, where Scotty got his hair cut monthly, Joan sat outside in front of the twirling candy stripe that spun forever upward. Inside, Kenny Rayburn used an electric razor to shave the back of Scotty’s head. Using scissors he trimmed Scotty’s bangs.


In the parking lot of Safeway, Scotty finished off a bottle of 7-UP and then asked for a sip of his mother’s beer. They talked about Buzz Aldrin.

At Magill’s Bakery, Scotty begged his mother to put the top down on her yellow convertible, and Joan couldn’t deny him. She unlatched the car top. She nodded to Scotty, who pushed the button that started it all moving. The black top rose up, folded back into itself, and Scotty could see the sky, which was gray, bruised with rain clouds.

She told him to wait right there. He stood up inside the car. She watched as he flailed his arms and shook his head.

“You know what I’m doing?”

“No, I don’t.” A palsy, Joan wanted to say. Something spastic.

It was the beginnings of a dance.

“Seven,” he said. “I’m seven.”

“You’re still six,” Joan reminded him. Then she walked quickly to the store. The sound of thunder came from above. It would rain in minutes. Before going into the bakery, she turned to check on him. Scotty had continued his dance alone.


Joan gasped. Any guilt for not baking her own cake disappeared the minute she saw the detailed frosting design. She turned to the baker Jerry Magill and exclaimed, “It’s wonderful!”

Using gray dye in the frosting, Jerry had created the surface of the moon. Frosting craters; a miniature lunar module built out of toothpicks; an astronaut figurine and seven candles with small American flags taped to the sides.

“It’s a work of art,” she said.

Jerry smiled. He’d been so pleased with the cake that earlier he’d photographed it for his scrapbook.

“It’s a crime to eat it,” Joan said. “This cake could be framed.”

“That’s quite a compliment coming from you.”

Joan Ocean began painting the year Scotty was born, working in a rented studio behind a toy store and an Italian restaurant in Windsor Heights, an adjoining suburb. Her work had a small following, and Jerry Magill and his wife were two of her most loyal supporters.

“I want it to be a surprise,” Joan said.

BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
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