I am on vacation, so we travel south, to Iowa, to visit a cousin. It takes three CDs, played through twice each, to get to her house. Santiago is harnessed in the back seat. He lays his chin on the arm rest beside me as I drive, his eyes closed. The music is soft. White fog clouds the far horizon, and there is hoarfrost on the trees that hover, ghost-like, at the edges of fields stubbled with corn stalks. I have to remind myself that these areas of flat land covered with snow are not lakes. They are farms: a monotony of agriculture where once wildflowers stood seven feet tall. English settlers described “oceans of grass.”
At a rest stop, Santiago barks at a caramel-colored terrier stretching his legs on the sidewalk. Travelers disembark and talk quietly with their companions. They hold doors for strangers. Santi pulls me past the low-slung building of toilets and drinking fountains and vending machines that dispense hot chocolate into little paper cups. We trot to where picnic tables are heaped with snow. No one has left a boot print here. A profusion of deer scat lies tantalizingly beneath a tree. Santiago sniffs at the black pellets and stares into a small woods.
I love the hospitality of this place, its simple cheer. I never feel lost at a rest stop.
Just after midday, we enter Ames. Santiago knows the street that we are heading for, knows the house, knows to enter the back door. Inside, the air is sweet with roasted tomatoes and freshly baked corn bread. The dining room walls are hung with pictures of barns. We are smiled upon. We spend a long evening visiting, and when Santi and I go to bed, it is in a guest room that is always decorated for Christmas. Santi crowds me to the edge of the mattress. We sleep soundly.
On a Friday morning, we wander the university campus. Snowflakes are falling like shooting stars: faintly, infrequently, as if they were a long way off, though they are there on the breast of my coat, on the tassels of my scarf, cold and wet on my cheek. Santiago jumps over snowbanks to sniff at landscaping, crawling under shrubs and considering the possibility of following a man into the horticulture building. Under the grow lights in the greenhouse, the corn is tall.
A silent campanile rises beside a path where students walk slowly and alone. They do not hold cell phones. They do not look at me or at Santiago. They wear colorless clothing and watch the sidewalk unspool in front of their feet. They are suffering from something.
We make our way to two trumpeter swans who are floating in little black opals of water on Lake LaVerne. A Canada goose stands beside one of them on a platform of ice, motionless and alert, like a bodyguard who has fallen in love with his charge. Under an arch of tree branches that frame the scene, Santiago stops, and together we watch them: the swans, the geese, the bench beside the water gathering snow. On the other side of the lake, the students march, impassive.
When we tell them that we are educating them for the real world, what world do we mean?
While Santiago naps among the Santas and the creches, my cousin and I lunch at our favorite restaurant. We order a big green salad and a grilled cheese sandwich so buttery that it crunches, and we talk for a long while after paying the bill. Under a still-gray sky, the morning snow is dripping off awnings up and down the business corridor. We browse idly in a couple of shops, then settle in at a candy store for gelato and coffee and more talking. Our parking meter expires.
At a purveyor of housewares, a young woman with Iowa-blond hair and smart blue eyes shows us washable silicon swabs and tells us how to clean candle wax from glass jars. We talk about how we had to be taught to create garbage–tin cans and milk jugs and paper towels and dry mop heads–and fill the land with it. She says that she is committed to second-hand clothes this year. We share our habits of smoothing aluminum foil and paper sacks to be used again. The woman says that she tells her grandmother, “We’re learning to live how you did.”
It is late in the afternoon when we get to the toy store. I buy polished moss agates, as many as will fit in a drawstring bag. When I bring the bag to the register, the shop woman sends me back to the bins to stuff it until it won’t close. When she is satisfied, she rings up my sale. The agates will be my touchstones. I will put them in a bowl on my coffee table at home, and when I look at them, when I cup them in my hands, I will remember all the things I love about the world.
Santi and I drive north again under a blue sky. Starlings break around a silver silo. A pick-up truck races along a country road, past a white farm house with a colonnaded porch. A hand-painted sign on a slight hill says that this freeway is the route that monarch butterflies travel. We stop at the visitor center on the state border. Santi pees on some garbage cans. I get lefse, rhubarb pie and a wildflower map to go. I explain to an Indian woman what lefse is.
In the morning, I lie against my bed pillows and watch the sky change from indigo to robin’s egg to worn denim. It takes an hour. From time to time, I nod off. When the day has stood on its toes and yawned, I get up.
Before my vacation is over, Santiago and I go to the dam. I let him prowl on the beach without his leash. He finds again the beaver carcass that was already mostly leather in October. He takes it between his teeth from under the snow and shakes it until I shout at him to drop it. He runs to the exposed roots of a tree that shelters life and pokes his snout in the crevasses, hunting.
Santi once met a woman at a bus shelter. She called him over to where she sat on a bench and took his face in her hands and kissed him on the mouth. She looked on his stripes and declared him “a tiger pit,” her favorite kind. He is like a tiger on this winter day at the beach, prowling on the cold sand and rock, beside snow-covered driftwood, standing on the frozen shore to gaze at the water splashing against it. As it pours over the dam, the river releases chunks of ice.
When Monday comes, I awake to an alarm: the sounds of men and women delivering what seems to them to be news. The sun is not yet up. As I drive to work, a car yanks out from a curb without signaling, and I swerve to avoid it. On the computer in my cubicle, I find scores of emails from people I’ll never talk with.
Santiago’s dog-sitter is on vacation. Just after midday, I leave the office. I get in the car. When I arrive home, I have just fifteen minutes to let the dog out into the frigid sunshine on the back deck, to scratch his jowls and give him a treat. It is good to be in the real world.