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Authors: Peter Hedges

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BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
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Mrs. Boyden started the morning by introducing herself. She informed her class that she’d been teaching for over thirty-five years. “So,” she said, “I know a thing or two.”

Then she explained that every day there would be certain procedures. Roll taking, the Pledge of Allegiance, a morning and an afternoon recess
if you’re good.

“Why do we take attendance, class?” She paused and then answered her own question. “So we know if you’re here.”

Scotty listened as Mrs. Boyden read the names of her new students. She appeared to be in no hurry. She explained that she preferred it if each person would answer by saying, “Present.” For it was no great feat for any of the students to be “here.” “Your parents made sure you were here. But to be ‘present,’ that is an accomplishment.”

As Mrs. Boyden spoke, she’d look at a student, sneak a quick glance at his or her tag, and make a mental note that linked the face to the name. “Everyone likes to be known by their name,” she believed. And in thirty-five years of first days, she had never failed—she always knew each of their names by the end of the day.

“Scott Ocean?”

Scotty said nothing.


She looked around the room, squinting as she searched for him.

Scotty slowly raised his hand. “I am Scotty.”

Mrs. Boyden made a mental note of his name. “You’re the brother of Claire and Maggie?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I was their teacher.”

“You were?”

“Didn’t they tell you?”


“I want to say something to you, Scotty. Your sisters were special students, two of my favorites. It would be unfair of me to expect you to be like them. Wouldn’t it?”

“Uhm,” Scotty said.

“I think it would.”

Scotty felt everyone looking at him.

Mrs. Boyden smiled. “I want you to be you. I want you to be yourself.”

Mrs. Boyden knew of the dangers of sibling comparison. Claire Ocean had been the brightest, most curious student in Mrs. Boyden’s experience. Though not as bright, Maggie was sweet and lovely, and a beauty-to-be. “I won’t be comparing you,” Mrs. Boyden said.

Scotty smiled because she seemed to want him to.

“Of course,” Mrs. Boyden continued, “if you’re anything like your sisters, that would be nice. There is much to admire about them.”

Mrs. Boyden’s glasses were horn-rimmed, the frame a milky gray color. She looked large, with strong, thick arms, and when
she turned around, Scotty saw purple blotches, grape jelly—like strands, colored lightning down the backs of her legs. Her age, he thought, was easy to guess. She was close to a hundred.

“Yep,” he said at dinner. “She’s a hundred. At least.”

His sisters laughed, for they knew she was in no way that age. “She looks old, but she’s not that old,” Claire announced.

Scotty sipped at his milk.

The girls had made a dinner of individual pot pies, which they heated in the oven. The Judge went to Kiwanis on Wednesdays and Joan was painting at her studio.

“She’s working on her show,” Claire said.

Joan would be displaying a series of new paintings at the end of the month.

“She’s painting all the time,” Scotty moaned.

“That’s what artists do.”

Scotty said, “I know that!”

When the Judge returned home, it was past their bedtime. He shooed them upstairs to bed.

“Where’s Mom?” Scotty asked.

The Judge said, “She’s painting. On to bed everyone.”

And up the girls went. Scotty lingered. He wanted the Judge to carry him to bed.

“You’re a second grader now, Scotty. Go on by yourself.”

Scotty sighed and climbed the stairs alone.


With the first week of classes out of the way, and having established the class rules and procedures, Mrs. Boyden felt that they could finally get around to the business of learning. So
early on Monday of the second week, she asked her students, “What do we all have in common?” She paused. “What about us is
the same

Ruth Rethman raised her hand and said, “We all have hair.”

“Yes, Ruth, we all have hair in common.”

Carole Staley, tall for her age, her hair in pigtails, raised her hand.

“Mrs. Boyden? My dad doesn’t. He’s bald.”

Mrs. Boyden clarified: “Carole, I’m talking about all of us in this room. Look around. What do all of us
in this room
have in common?”

While she waited for more answers, Mrs. Boyden turned and wrote “hair” on the chalkboard. “What else?”

They began to call out their ideas and Mrs. Boyden compiled a list.

Eyes. Nose. Feet. Toes.

“Very good, everyone.”

Shoes. Clothes. Teeth.

“Very, very good!”

“We’re all seven,” Scotty called out.

“I’m not!” Craig Hunt shouted. Craig was eight. He’d been held back. He would be nine in March.

“And I won’t be for long,” Dan Burkhett added. Dan Burkhett’s birthday was less than two weeks away.

“So we’re not all seven. Anyone else?”

“Pets,” Cindy McCameron suggested.

“Does everyone have a pet?”

A disappointed Tom Conway slowly raised his hand. “Not me,” he said.

“If we don’t all have pets, then we don’t have that in common.”

Bev Fowler said, “We all have moms.”

“That’s right. You all have moms. And dads. Let’s not forget dads. Even I have a mom and dad,” Mrs. Boyden added, “and I’m old enough to be your grandmother. Both of my parents are still alive.”

Every so often Mrs. Boyden let a personal revelation slip out. Sometimes she forgot that she was talking to second graders. Usually, though, their lack of response snapped her back into reality, reminding her that the people in front of her were children.

“Can anyone think of anything else we have in common?”

There was a silence.


Mrs. Boyden had written so much she had to take out a new piece of chalk, which, when she wasn’t writing, she held like a cigarette.

“I’m looking for an answer that I suspect none of you will have.”

No room remained on the chalkboard so Mrs. Boyden took an eraser and rubbed a large circular area clean. With her back to them, she wrote in large, thick block lettering,

Mrs. Boyden asked, “What does that mean?”

No one knew.

“It means we’re from Iowa.”

Over the next several days, she would teach them the state bird (goldfinch), the state rock (geode), the state flower (goldenrod), and the state song, which on special days they would sing after saying the Pledge of Allegiance. She would tell them about the many famous Iowans—John Wayne was from Winterset, Johnny Carson had been born over near Council Bluffs, and Herbert Hoover, the thirty-first President
of the United States, was born and now was buried in West Branch. This intense study of “the Corn State” would culminate with a trip to the Iowa Historical Society early in October.


But it was always on the first day she taught Iowa that Mrs. Boyden said and did the following:

“Three quarters of the earth is covered by water; there are five continents, hundreds of countries (including America), and fifty states, of which Iowa is one.”

She pulled down a map of the United States. Each state was a different color.

“Who can find Iowa?”

Before any of her students could volunteer, Mrs. Boyden had taken her pointer stick and tapped the map.

“Here. Here it is.”

Scotty and his classmates looked intently at the small state in the middle.

“Iowa,” she said with relish, “is where we all are.”


“You couldn’t ask for better weather,” the Judge said as he turned the Dodge into the first parking space he saw. The sky was cloudless and the air warm for late September. “This is probably the last day a person will be able to wear short sleeves.” Scotty and his sisters got out of the car as fast as they could.

It had been a few days since they had seen Joan. Every year
she worked in a fury to finish in time, but this year she had worked extra-long hours because, as she explained to them, “my work has gone in a new direction.”

The crowd of people who attended Joan’s art show consisted of friends, members of the church, the Judge’s secretary, Judge Frohn and his wife, the baker Jerry Magill and his wife, and—to Joan’s satisfaction—a number of people she didn’t know.

She had everyone gather in the parking lot outside of her studio, and Joan, dressed in a floral skirt and a black blouse, stood in front of the door. She normally let the work speak for itself and allowed people to wander in and out. But for this show, she wanted to be more formal. She wanted to urge the first-timers to sign her mailing list. Most important, she wanted to prepare people for what they were about to see.

“I want to welcome you to my show. And in advance, I want to thank you for your support. It means so much.”

Claire whispered to Maggie, “Mom’s nervous.”

Joan wanted to explain her new approach. But she couldn’t think of the right way to explain the unexplainable, so she finished by saying, “I hope you like what you see.” Then she stepped out of the way. Scotty darted in front of the others, for he wanted to be the first inside.

The studio was spotless. Her supplies were packed away in the coat closet and in boxes on shelves in the bathroom. She removed anything that would distract from the ten large canvases that hung on the walls. These paintings were unlike anything Joan had ever made before.

Each painting was a variation on a theme: Joan naked. Joan lying down. Joan sitting with her legs crossed. Joan smoking. Joan clenching a fist. Joan asleep. In all of them Joan was naked.

She hadn’t flattered herself. In fact, it was as if she had gone
out of her way to distort herself. The Judge’s first impulse was to say, “She’s much prettier than this.” But he said nothing. As he glanced from painting to painting, he wondered, Why would a person make themselves less appealing than they are?

All ten paintings were done in oil. In some cases, and not because of haste, Joan left large globs on the canvas. That gave a texture to the work: the impression that these paintings had been carved.

At one end of the studio, a folding table served as a place to get refreshments: bottles of pop, wine, platters of cheese and crackers, a plate of celery and carrot sticks.

Joan had asked Claire and Maggie to serve refreshments. Scotty had the run of the place.

“Mom’s in a rut,” Claire whispered to Maggie during a lull in their serving.

Scotty came over. He wanted to know what she had said.

“It’s nothing, Scotty. Anyway, Dad wants you outside.”

Scotty ran on.

“Yep,” Maggie said. “Mom’s in a rut.”

Outside, the Judge talked with a lawyer acquaintance. They discussed politics, football, and a recent Supreme Court decision—everything but Joan’s paintings. He had supported her by buying the supplies, the paint, but he knew he would have to say something soon. He couldn’t afford to spend money in this manner. He wouldn’t mention it now, but soon he’d have to say something.

For Joan, this new work was brave and honest, her best ever. But she could tell by the quick manner in which the guests moved through her studio; she could tell by their sometimes blank, sometimes confused faces and the way they struggled to find nice words that they did not approve. And then, an hour into her reception, the simple fact that almost everyone
was outside, smoking and talking about other things, indicated to Joan that nothing was going to sell.

So she taped up several of Scotty’s watercolors on a bare section of wall and called for the guests to gather around. She started to auction Scotty’s paintings and a kind person, a hippielike man who wore a colorful tie, bid five dollars for all six paintings.

“Sold,” Joan said.

She gave Scotty the five dollars and said, “When you get paid, Scotty, it makes you a professional.” Then she told him to go home with his father and sisters. Scotty wanted to stay with Joan, but she said that she’d clean up and be home soon after.


The day after the art show, Scotty spent the afternoon with his mother watching TV. He curled up with her on the sofa. He told her about all he had been learning at school. “The goldfinch is the state bird,” he said. But he’d already forgotten the state rock and the state flower. Joan said, “It’s okay, sweetie. There are more important things to remember.”

Then she sent him to the basement. He moved fast. He loved to be helpful.

Standing before his mother, Scotty held the can proudly. He peeled off the tab in one swift move. The beer foamed and ran over the sides. Joan took the can, her mouth open, and used her tongue and lips to catch the beer. Some of it got on Scotty’s fingers so she licked them, too.

There was none of her usual embarrassment as this was
already her fourth can. Scotty had been bringing her beers since early that afternoon, the first one arriving minutes after the Judge took Claire and Maggie to the Merle Hay Shopping Center.

After each empty can, Scotty would wash it out carefully in the sink, go to the garage and step on it, crushing it into a metal pancake, and put it in a hidden sack behind Joan Ocean’s garden tools. The sack was filled with secret cans. One day soon they would drive to the Dumpster behind Kmart and throw the cans away.

Back in the house, Scotty unwrapped a stick of his mother’s gum. She opened her mouth and he slid it between her lips. “This will make mother’s breath beautiful,” she said. Then she told him how much she loved him. “And, Scotty, remember—you’re my favorite son.”

“But I’m your only son.”

“All the more reason.”

Later she was to say, “Mother needs a nap.”

Standing in front of her, though, book in one hand, a pen in the other, was Scotty. She looked with surprise at her young man.

She extended her arms and pulled him tight to her chest. He wiggled free enough to hold up the book. He hoped he was clear.

“Didn’t we just do this a few weeks back?”

“I know,” he said. “But I’m growing fast. A spurt.”

“Nobody grows that fast.”

“I do. At night, I can hear my bones stretching, creaking and things. You can hear me growing, too, if you listen.” He held an arm up to her ear.

BOOK: An Ocean in Iowa
11.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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