The storm clouds rolled over the barley field just as Loretta Monson finished trimming the beans. As dark as that sky was, Clem would be back for supper early. She hurried. By the time he pulled the tractor and the cultivator into the Quonset, she had the hamburger steaks, the pickles, the beets, the green beans, and the rolls on the table. She’d even had time to lay the tablecloth, take off her frayed apron, and smooth the freshly ironed napkin over her lap. “Milk?” she called out through the screen door. He grunted as he took off his boots on the porch and washed at the faucet outside the house. Just as he was settled at the table to say grace, the rain arrived, relentlessly assaulting the aluminum siding they’d put on the farmhouse last year after the big hail.
“So?” Loretta said. She was too eager. She could hear it herself, but she never did know how to wait.
“Beets” he said. She passed the chipped dish to him. “Didn’t think we’d get rain today,” he said as he scooped. “Bright as can be this morning.”
She’d been fast asleep when he’d left that morning. He made his own breakfast, something he never did in the old days. Even when she was sick, even the day after Maurice was born, the very day after, she got up to make eggs and bacon and coffee for Clem. But he’d stopped waking her this summer and she took that extra hour or so in bed as a reward.
Sometimes Clem even left a piece of bacon or two on a plate, which she ate cold over the sink. At lunch, she still went out to the field with sandwiches on homemade buns, fresh from the oven, but if the men were there, she couldn’t talk to him. Today, for example, he’d been bent over the cultivator, pointing his finger at some doo-dad, telling Roscoe Braaten that his work was sub-par and in need of improvement. Of course, Clem didn’t use those particular words, but Loretta wasn’t in the habit of repeating what she heard from men in the fields.
Clem nodded, took a sip of milk from Loretta’s mother’s Depression glass goblet. He gripped his fork in his fist, a habit Loretta simply couldn’t break him of, and stuffed a piece of hamburger steak in his mouth, barely chewing before swallowing. “It happened twice today,” he said. “They come for me two times.”
“Twice?” Loretta exclaimed, dropping her delicate-handled fork into her plate. The handle swam in beet juice. “It’s never happened twice in one day before.” That sound in her voice, that little waver, was not disbelief. It was jealousy. They hadn’t come for her since Sunday.
Clem wiped his mouth on his wrist. “Just after dawn. We was walking to the Quonset, Roscoe and me, and then boom.”
“Did they take Roscoe?”
Clem smiled. He was still handsome at times. “What use have they for Roscoe?” She laughed a little along with him. They did that now at times, laughed together. They never did before the transports happened. That’s what they’d taken to calling them—transports.
“Where did they take you?” She forced her trembling hands into her lap and willed herself not to tug at the rogue thread on the napkin’s edge.
She nodded. It was always the same place. “Did they hurt you? Sometimes it hurts.” “They just wanted to talk this time. To visit a little.”
She picked at her dinner roll. It was just a white flour bun, the same thing she gave Clem for his noon dinner, but at supper she liked to call it a roll. If you didn’t hold onto some of those things—the table cloth, the napkins, the serving dishes—well, then what was left?
“They said they may be back tonight.”
That made Loretta feel better. If they came while she and Clem were in bed, they would certainly take both of them. They’d never left her behind at night, not since the first time. But that was understandable, Clem said. They assumed he’d want to get the lay of the land and so forth before she came along.
“If they are coming this often, it’s getting serious,” Loretta said.
“Do you remember when Maurice was just a little shaver, four or five, and he fell in the grain silo and sunk?” she asked. Since the transports started, they’d gotten in the habit of talking about Maurice again.
Clem picked at his tooth. “Little monkey let himself fall.” Nothing was preordained in Clem’s world. No fall was unavoidable.
“Oh, how he cried!” she exclaimed. Maurice had been playing with two or three children that belonged to the men. One of them, a skinny buck-toothed older boy named Ronald, a boy Loretta had always assumed was slow in the head, had the wherewithal to yell bloody murder. Clem hopped into action while Loretta herself just froze. By the time she had a plan, one that involved climbing those tiny stairs and diving into the grain bin herself, Clem had fished out Maurice and was pounding his heaving little back with the meaty side of his hand. Maurice vomited out dust and gasped for air. He was alive. Clem hit him with the belt that night. Just one good licking across the pale skin of Maurice’s tiny behind. Loretta went outside to the garden and sat down right between the rows of butter lettuce. Clem was right to do it, but that didn’t make it easy.
They sat in easy silence, both thinking about Maurice.
“Anything new with the transporters?” Loretta finally asked, as if they were discussing the Feists, neighbors who lived a mile up the highway.
“‘Information gathering,’” Clem said and then burped behind his hand, “is what they called it. I told them I don’t look at TV no more, so I don’t got no information for them.”
“But you read the paper,” Loretta said triumphantly. It had been she who had insisted upon the subscription. A man from town brought it to their mailbox every evening. Loretta and Clem read it together, sometimes out loud, in the evening by the light of the lamp they’d bought at Sears specifically for that purpose.
“I wonder what they are up to,” Loretta said as she cleared Clem’s plate. She had a peach cobbler for him with fresh whipped cream.
Clem simply grunted, which meant he was done talking. And when Clem was done, there was no use pushing him. She sighed happily anyway and refilled his glass with cold milk. In the old days, back before the transports, Clem would not talk at the table at all. And here they were! Having whole conversations, like newscasters or royal family members.
Even though Loretta and Clem went to bed earlier than usual, before dark even,they didn’t come. Loretta didn’t close her heavy eyes until well after two or three in the morning. When she woke, the sun was shining brightly through the muslin curtains and Clem was long gone in the fields. After she popped a ham in the oven for Clem’s noontime dinner—she could make him ham buns and then heat up some slices for their supper—she decided to take her embroidery out on the porch. Clem had built her a little swing that she liked even though it was too tall and her feet couldn’t touch the ground. It made her feel like a child.
They came just after she pricked her finger and muttered dang it under her breath. She wiped her finger on the side of the wooden swing, and next thing she knew, she was with them. They looked about the same—small, pale, hairless, interchangeable. Just normal, ornormal for them. “What about the plan?” she asked them. “My husband mentioned the informationgathering.”
“Don’t worry one bit,” they said. They spoke in unison like that. That’s how she and Clem discovered that they shared one community brain. How strange it was that the group of them, thirty or more, all thought and spoke at the exact same time. The closest she could come to identifying that feeling—that we-ness—was remembering being pregnant with Maurice. But then Maurice entered the world howling and they never had that closeness again.
“Do you like Clem better than me?” she asked. This wouldn’t be the first time she was in Clem’s shadow. He was mute as a ventriloquist dummy at home, but when he was with people, he turned on like a crystal chandelier. She was more of a davenport, firm and serviceable, but nothing to talk about unless it wasn’t doing its job.
“Heavens no,” they said. “We find you equally compelling.”
“Compelling,” she repeated. No one had ever used such a word to describe her. But it must be true. Why else would they want to transport her and Clem if not for some invisible reason that everyone had overlooked all these years. Clem and Loretta Monson had been so forgettable, so unimportant all these years that even God had abandoned them. Not because they or He were wicked, but because she and Clem were like individual raindrops, part of the storm, but not the eye of it.
Oh, not that anything especially terrible had happened. Others had suffered so much more. Loretta thought about Ted McStuckey who drove home from town drunk as a skunk and crashed into a road sign. They found his bottom half in the driver’s seat, the top half stuck in a shelter belt tree. Or there was Mr. and Mrs. Rosinsky who lived up the road a few miles. All five of their children died in a fire when a space heater lit Mrs. Rosinksy’s new draperies while the Rosinksys themselves were out playing bingo at Shepherd Lutheran. Loretta and Clem had ordinary the tragedies: Parents passing slowly of illness that wrung the life out of them, bad years when money was scarce, the winters when Clem drank too much and went utterly silent. Maurice. Their only child, the only one God bestowed upon them. Then Maurice left, went off west somewhere, took up drinking and drugs and that kind of thing. Clem had to hire help on the farm. Heaven only knew who’d inherit the land when Clem and Loretta passed. Maurice would sooner sit on a bee’s nest than put his fingers in the Dakota dirt that had sustained two generations of Munsons. All of this she shared with the transporters, the hive brain that listened and murmured back at her: “You deserve so much more, Loretta.”
At supper that night, Loretta told Clem about the morning transport, but she left out the part where she told about their life. Clem was private. When he was with her on the transports, she said almost nothing. “Sounds like you had yourself a big day,” Clem said. He was eating caramel apple pie with apples she’d frozen from last fall. She dabbed a spoonful of cream on top of his plate. He grabbed her arm, just near her wrist. “Thank you, sweetheart,” he said. She felt her cheeks go rosy. When had he last called her sweetheart? She tapped him on the head and tousled his hair, “You old coot,” she said.
On Sunday they went to church for the first time in fifteen years or so. Father Terry probably thought he was having visions when they walked in the side doors and sat in their usual pew. “Coffee?” Clem asked her after mass. He took her hand for a brief moment, just as they’d walked outside the church doors and the sunlight hit her face. She squinted up at him. “Of course,” she said. They went to the Rolling Pin and sat with Herb Lonnegan and his new wife, a pretty blonde who was at least twenty years younger and who had a behind the shape and size of a toaster oven. Clem raised his eyebrows at her and she stifled a laugh.
The funny thing about the transports were the rules. The rules of physics, that is. At least that’s how Loretta thought about it, not that she knew a teacup’s worth about physics. What she did know was that you never knew who else was transported with you. You always had the impression that you were alone with them, but sometimes Loretta and Clem would compare notes and discover they’d both been transported at the same time, yet they didn’t see each other. In bed one night, they discussed possible explanations.
“We must be in different rooms,” Clem said.
“Or maybe time is different there. Maybe it feels like the same time to us, but to them it’s hundreds of years separating us.” She felt Clem nodding. They were lying on their backs with just the sheet. It was too hot for blankets, yet they still found each other: thigh against thigh, toes mingling, fingers curled together.
They tried to compare impressions of the transporters themselves, but it was a useless project. Clem’s were grey and blobby. Cartoonish, in fact. Her transporters were more like wisps of air if air had a body. The place the wisps of air took her was nowhere. It wasn’t just indescribable. It was a place that literally looked like nothing. It was nowhere, but she was there.
One day in mid-August, when it was so muggy she could barely breathe, Clem came in from the fields early, bathed, and took her to town. To Norby’s to buy a new dress. She’d always been terrible with her sewing machine, so when Maurice left, she donated it to St. Mary’s. What little she and Clem bought, she ordered from the catalog.
In the store, Clem walked right beside her, pausing to comment on a cotton skirt or rub a poly-blend blouse on the back of his hand. It was all such a surprise. When had Clem ever set foot in the ladies’ department? When had he taken an afternoon off and left it to the men to do the work? When had he walked beside her, letting his arm brush again hers?
She purchased a short-sleeved cotton blouse in pale lavender (she’d wanted pearl-grey, but Clem had insisted she looked just right in lavender), a pair of slacks to replace her old pilly ones she wore around the house, and a pair of brown woven sandals that were on mark-down. Clem suggested Dairy Queen next. They licked their cones—a small vanilla each—and sat at the wooden picnic table out front to watch the people.
“They came,” Clem said, “the transporters.”
“When?” Loretta was shocked. They’d been together all afternoon. She hadn’t noticed him missing. But come to think of it, that was another thing: You couldn’t judge time with the transporters. An hour could feel like a half-second and vice versa. It all depended.
“While you were in the dressing room.” She knew she shouldn’t have dithered over the pants, trying on every pair in her size because you never knew if they messed them up at the factory. “They offered me a choice,” Clem said.
Loretta paused and wiped melted soft serve from her wrist. “They haven’t told me a thing about a choice.” Or had they? Sometimes she forgot. Or she realized she knew things that she didn’t know seconds before.
“They want us to go there. To live there. If we say no, they’ll go away. Forever. It’s a what-do-you-call-it.”
“An ultimatum,” Loretta said.
“That sounds right. We go there or else nothing.”
“There?” Loretta said aloud, wondering how you lived nowhere. She licked until the ice cream was gone. Then she ate the cone, one small nibble at a time. “We would have to leave Maurice,” she finally said.
Clem threw his uneaten cone in the trash. He didn’t suggest they stick around town for supper. Instead, he drove them straight home.
That night Loretta couldn’t sleep. She got up to warm up some milk on the stove. Clem found her sitting on the rocking chair she kept by the picture window. He reached for the mug. She handed it to him, and he took a long drink. “Lukewarm,” he said. “I’ve been here a while. I can make you some fresh.” “No, no. You sit,” Clem said. He scratched at his chest. He was wearing an undershirt so old that Loretta couldn’t get it white anymore. It was a pale yellow, so tattered and repaired that it wasn’t even good enough to be a rag. But Clem refused to get rid of it. He was like that.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said.
“You don’t have to go,” he told her.
“I want to. I like the transports. I like going.”
Clem knelt down beside her. She could hear the crack of his bad knee. “I do too, honey.” He clasped her hand. So much of their life together had been used up by the grind, the day-to-day of it all. For so long, Maurice had been between them, like a giant wall that neither could see over. Even when he was a thousand miles away, in some location they would never see, he was there. But here was Clem. On the other side of the wall. Here he was.
“They think I’m compelling. We’re compelling,” Loretta said.
“We are that,” Clem said and put his waxy lips to the heel of her palm. “We certainly are that.”
Maurice was a chronological adult. But he retained a strain of helplessness, of self-centeredness, of genuine certainty that one rarely saw in any person except a toddler.
After a stint in California, somewhere by a beach, he’d moved back to town where he lived in a small apartment (paid for by Clem) with furniture and dishes and linens thoughtfully selected by Loretta herself from the St. Vincent de Paul. He worked at jobs until he got bored, but he was proud of never having been fired. So far he’d sold shoes, knives, tires, ladies’ undergarments, frozen food, fruit, fertilizer, and for one day, insurance. He quit when he decidedthat the insurance business was a scam that offended his ethical sensibilities.
Maurice was no longer high on substances, chemical or organic. He was no longer wide-eyed with shaky hands. He no longer talked too loud and too fast, though he was still madly in love with his own voice. No sniffing or trips to the bathroom in which he’d disappear for an hour or more at a time. But he was every bit as high as he’d ever been. It wasn’t white powder this time. It was steps and mantras and the whole enchilada of recovery itself. He talked about it endlessly, encouraged everyone to join some kind of anon where they could surrender to a higher power and eat powdered donuts in a church hall. Loretta had tried a few meetings, but didn’t have the heart to continue. It was too much display, like standing naked on the altar rail at church. Clem hadn’t even tried a meeting, pronouncing AA “pure bunkum.”
Maurice showed up early one evening during harvest. Clem would be in the fields until dark, maybe even later now that he had rigged lights on his combine. Maurice rarely came around if there was even a chance Clem would be in the house; Clem himself had never once set foot in Maurice’s apartment, preferring to let Loretta handle any business that didn’t involve a checkbook.
Loretta fixed Maurice a plate of meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy, sliced garden tomatoes, and a saucer with vinegar and peppered onion slices.
“It’s not a loan,” Maurice was saying, “definitely not a loan. I won’t say an investment either because I don’t want to mislead you in case this doesn’t pan out. It’s a gift, I guess you could say. I’m asking for a gift. She poured him a glass of water, set the catsup bottle by his plate. “Not a gift gift,” Maurice went on. “My sobriety was a gift. You and Dad gave me that and I’ll be forever grateful.” He looked heavenward. Maurice had recently joined some kind of Christian church whose services were held in a strip mall and whose liturgy music included tambourines and guitars that required electrical sockets. “What I need—what I want—is to figure out who I am. I just need some space.” He gestured around him, nearly knocking his onion plate off the table. She drifted off as he was talking until she heard him calling her name. “Mom. Mother. Hello?” He snapped his fingers.
“I’m here, dear,” she told him, but Maurice was looking at her in a way she didn’t like. She asked him to tell her more about his little project. Get him talking again and he wouldn’t start in about her memory or her tendency to just drift off.
Maurice was still explaining time and gifts and gratitude when Clem came into the kitchen.
“You’re back early,” Loretta said.
“Roscoe is finishing up,” Clem answered and then looked at her for a second too long. She knew the transporters had come. That’s why he was back. He wanted to tell her about it. He was going to give them the answer: Loretta and Clem were coming. Or going, rather. They were going there to live. Forever —or however long it was possible to live with the transporters. That wasn’t clear, but neither was life on earth clear. They hadn’t talked about what would happen to the farm. That was the beauty of Transport Land, the name they’d given the new wonderful place. The farm didn’t matter. Nothing did. Life would go on back on earth, but they’d be above it all, or below it or next to it. Whatever direction it was. They’d be living a parallel life in a world that they understood even less than they did this one. But wasn’t that the beauty of it all?
Clem greeted Maurice with a formal handshake and offered to refill his water glass. Clem pretended Maurice was an important guest, one that he hosted not because he wanted to, but because the honor was too great to pass up. He did that for her.
“Maurice would like to move in with us,” Loretta said, so flustered that she reached into the oven for Clem’s plate without her oven mitt.
Clem drank a glass of water from the tap. “Interesting,” he said.
Maurice began talking about the opportunities. He was going to write, read more, really “get in touch with himself.” He was going to help others by, you know, “really connecting on a human level.” He was going to “put it all out there, warts and all,” he was going “go deep,” really “get at it.” Loretta hadn’t the first clue what all that meant, and she had a strong suspicion Maurice didn’t either. “Plus, I can look after you two,” Maurice said. “Neither of you are getting any younger. Might be nice to have me around.”
“Here you go, dear,” Loretta said and set a piece of lemon merengue pie in front of him. Maurice tore into the slice with his fork like he has tearing apart a dead gopher, like the ones he used to shoot by the river.
She looked over at Clem, but his head was down, focused on a newspaper he’d already read that morning.
That night, when the transporters came for her and Clem, she told them the news. She couldn’t go to Transport Land, not with Maurice at home, needing so much, taking up so much space. If he was going to find himself, she owed it to him to help him look. He was her baby. Her gift. A terrible gift, one that she didn’t ask for, one that she didn’t even know if she wanted anymore. But Maurice was hers, as much as her arms and legs were hers.
“But Clem,” they said, “what about Clem?”
“He’ll be just fine,” she answered. “Won’t you, sweetheart? You’ll be fine here, won’t you?”
When she woke up in her bed, the sun coming through the window already, she stretched her arm to Clem’s side of the bed, reaching for himif he was there.
Originally from Fargo, North Dakota, Christine Seifert is a professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she teaches writing and rhetoric. She is the author of one novel, The Predicteds, and two nonfiction books for young adults, Whoppers: History’s Most Outrageous Lies and Liars and The Factory Girls: A Kaleidoscopic Account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. She is also the author of Virginity in Young Adult Literature after Twilight, an analysis of sex and virginity in YA fiction.