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And then he asked if we saw his wife earlier come down the riverbank, and though we did, we did not answer, could not answer — I know of no way to answer a question like that, yet kneeling, facing upstream, with what has happened to me going downstream: in fact he requires no answer, he knows that his pallid wife is ahead of him, and not far enough ahead to be lost, and he is therefore indifferent to one’s rescue, or whatever I did, with whatever I had, dead woman or mermaid. This is the notion I have, kneeling, as close to drowning the poet as he ever needs anyone to be. I know something about this uncurious poet, I can be most uncurious myself.

Before she arrived, I watched with careful indifference the baby dolls, bicycles, hair dryers (the institutional dome type — very little in a good flood makes sense), a piano with a deer on it … Yet what one watches is the water — swirls, slicks, butter-colored suds. As a consequence, women can surprise you.

I know some poets who would have leapt into the water and watched the face of this visionary woman disappear, uttering the same pained gasp I did, asking only, “Is it over — between you two?” before diving in headlong downstream after her. And some poets I know would not have asked but thrashed thigh-deep to her and taken her roughly by the hair from your very embrace.

But today’s poet stays his course. “I’m not lost, am I? I don’t recognize things with all this water. It sure is dark, too.” The pallid figure of his wife lures him on, she also who walked by the magic scene.

The poet keeps going downriver. My wife, my wife, he thinks. Having asked after his living, actual wife, having seen the release of a mermaid he would not acknowledge, he now thinks about his dead, nonactual wife, his first wife.

He sees her in only a handful of fixed attitudes, lovely aspects, doing a handful of things, dear wifely functions he was indifferent to when she was alive. His indifference to these touching scenes killed her, he thinks. Ironing.

She is ironing his shirts, humming a popular song. A top-forty radio thing. Heavy cotton broadcloth shirts she presses, working the iron like a hot trowel in mortar, and somehow the freshness of the laundered shirts transfers to her, to her dress, her dress becomes in his memory a spectacular simple girly A-line — crisp, sweet, damp — and she his wife a cool-skinned model of a girl doing all this for him, with equanimity and grace, and if he were not following her replacement down a river, not watching the water lest someone’s mermaid surface and appeal to him for help, he would whistle a tune and go to his first wife and nose her in the pleats and darts as she irons, over light steam.


THE DINER QUIT SERVING food, but it did not close. Likewise, the drive-in stopped showing movies but remained open. Songbirds of all character and kind gave their distinctive calls and showed their identifying profiles and markings and gave cats hell and made a general paean to Roger Tory Peterson. A lone Allis Chalmers combine dominated the skyline. It, the machine, was for sale, used, quite used.

The ladies of the town were so nice, and had been so deliberately nice all their natural lives, that they came to regard cancer as a blessing. Most of them got it; those that didn’t felt cheated, left out.

The men had never learned to cuss, drink, fight, adulterate, or drive too fast. They stood there as their wives received the good bad news and as the songbirds flitted about their heads like gnats. “What a revolting development this is,” one of them said, earnestly thinking the remark funny. “It’s Tuesday,” the comic farmer continued, “and will be all day unless it rains.” He could not suppress a giggle.

It no longer bothered him that he did not know — no one knew — who the father of his wheat was. He had come, over the years, to regard his wheat not as bastard wheat but as adoptive. No one knew the father of the adopted, and that did not make for calling them bastards. “That’s being wrapped too tight,” he concluded, using for the first time, with a thrill, a line he had heard on a television comedy show he did not understand but laughed at anyway.

He had heard flip your wig on the same show. Flip your wig and another even more obscure expression used near it, wig out, made him uncomfortable. He told the Allis Chalmers dealer that the used combine was wigged out, to test the meaning. The Chalmers dealer merely shrugged and patted him on the shoulder and walked back into his showroom. He had meant that the combine was worn out, but now, having been a smartass, he had no idea what wigged out meant, and he was afraid to proof the term any further.

The diner was open but not serving food, and the drive-in let you park and put a speaker in your car but showed no movie. You passed your unused napkin back to the waitress with a very small tip, and you put the silent speaker back on its post and drove away. The world was getting easier, in its way, as it got harder to figure. People were confused somewhat, but they were losing weight and were not subject to sex and violence from Hollywood. Children were not acting confused at all, but — here was a thing to ponder — they had never been overweight, and they had never objected to sex and violence in their entertainment. Things, people felt, would make sense if they could just think them through. “Sit and contemplate your navel,” the comic farmer liked to put it. “Sit and contemplate your navel.”

They sat and contemplated the government-suppressed price of wheat, which was at least a dollar per bushel lower than what it cost to produce a bushel of wheat; and contemplated not producing wheat as a protest; and contemplated why on earth they actually continued to produce wheat, losing, as they were, at least a dollar per bushel; and contemplated, finally, precisely how they were able still to produce wheat if they had in fact lost at least a dollar per bushel on the last hundred million or so bushels. It was this — still producing wheat — that made contemplation of the navel a somehow more reasonable and easy thing to consider. But contemplating the navel was something no one really knew anything about, and moreover, they suspected that that contemplation required a specific if not downright exotic place, and all of their place was plain.

“That goldarn government of ours,” the farmer prone to comedy announced one morning to the other farmers not eating at the diner, “is wigged out.” Strangely coordinated, the farmers all together gently passed their clean napkins and their dimes to the waitress and wordlessly eased out of the diner. The comic farmer sat there, surprised at his foolishness in testing the expression so … so blithely a second time. He noticed that all the departing farmers wore the same co-op hat — color and apparent age of the caps looked identical. It was as if new hats had been handed out at an assembly that he had missed. This was impossible. There were no assemblies, certainly no hat-handing-out assemblies, and he would not have missed it if there had been such an assembly, or any kind of assembly at all. He thought immediately of alien movies: Had all his peers been possessed by …? Or were they normal, and his old-hattedness an index that he had somehow gotten out of step? They had had a co-op party, say a wheat tour, had handed out a hundred brand-new mesh caps, and he had been somewhere else, watching TV for new material or contemplating his navel without knowing it. Kansas was becoming a strange and dangerous terrain.