explanation. When Sarah married Ed, she told me that she and Dave didn’t get along, not because Dave couldn’t accept her as his stepmother but because he couldn’t accept having less of his father’s attention. Sarah liked talking that way; when she was at McCook, she took one psychology class, and she wore it proudly whenever she could. I told her that it would get better, that Dave was a nice guy who didn’t usually hold a grudge over stupid things.

I was wrong. Dave didn’t like her to start with, and after about six months the two of them hated each other. He called me once when he was back in town and said he didn’t understand how I could be sisters with such a stuck-up, dull, foolish kind of person. I told him that Sarah and I were different, but not so different. He told me that I needed to think more highly of myself. Then he started telling me that I was still on his mind. While he was talking, Berne walked in the room, and I had to pretend it was the grocer on the phone so that Berne wouldn’t get suspicious.

BERNE’S DAD WAS A FARMER, but he was also a banker. He gave loans to other farmers. Berne has shown me pictures of his father when he first came to town in the thirties. He was a nicely dressed man, as handsome as his son, and he was always smiling. In the pictures, at least. To hear Berne tell it, he took a turn for the worse after he married Berne’s mother, who was the kind of woman who liked to tell her husband one thing and do another thing. That other thing, mostly, was running around with other men. Berne said that was the main reason he was so jealous, because his mama made a fool of his daddy. The men in town who were friends of Berne’s daddy used to tell him to leave. Ed wasn’t one of those men—he was a roughneck, and Berne’s daddy was a gentle soul—but he was a man people listened to. You know, he liked to say, if I had a woman like that, it would put crazy thoughts in my head.

Berne’s daddy had a saying in return: when a man has crazy thoughts in his head, he should count to ten and pray that those thoughts go away. Ed and Berne’s daddy must have been talking about two different kinds of crazy thoughts, because at some point Berne’s daddy couldn’t count to ten anymore. Instead, he went out to the barn, looped a rope over the main beam, and hanged himself until he was dead.

WHEN BERNE’S DADDY DIED out in the barn, Berne buckled down. He became more himself, more careful, more quiet. When Ed died of his heart attack, Dave went to seed. He wasn’t even going to come back for the funeral, he told me on the telephone, because coming back was proof that his dad was dead. I told him that he needed to pay his respects, and that he needed to think about Sarah for a minute, also, because she loved Ed as much as Dave did, and this was a time when they needed to set aside their differences. He didn’t say anything on the telephone, but he must have liked my advice because the morning of the funeral he showed up at the church, clean-shaven, eyes bright, mouth set in a serious line. I’m just going to stay for the day, he told me, but he was in town the next day, and the day after that, and after a month it became obvious that he wasn’t going to make it out of town any time soon, and that the line of his mouth wasn’t going to stay so straight. Mainly it was the drink, although the women didn’t help either. He set up a studio over the hardware store and started painting all the girls in town. Some of the fathers of the girls weren’t too thrilled about having a young painter like that set up shop in their midst. It was probably one of those fathers who went by Dave’s studio one night and beat him up. He was in pretty bad shape afterward, not because the beating was so severe but because he slipped down the stairs while he was leaving his studio and ended up smacking his hipbone on the banister-post.

I let him come live in the barn of Berne’s farm. Berne wasn’t too pleased about the arrangement, but not because he suspected anything about me and Dave. He wasn’t too pleased because it was so soon after the wedding, and he wanted to have some time for the two of us, and also because he’s just that type of guy: not too pleased. I told him that I felt responsible for Dave because he was kind of my nephew, being my sister’s husband’s son. “We’re all knots on the same rope,” I told him, and I don’t know if he liked the sound of it or not, but he nodded. I also reminded him how hard it was for him to lose his own father, and that Dave wasn’t as strong a person inside. And then I told him that if he let Dave come to stay with us, I would be a very good wife, if he knew what I meant, and he did, and he rolled his eyes and laughed. “If you’re not trying to make babies, Susan, it’s a sin,” he said.

IT WAS BECAUSE OF BERNE’S FATHER THAT, when we were dating, half the time he said he didn’t want any children. Children just keep people together who shouldn’t be together, he said. The other half of the time he said he wanted children because children are the best part of love. “Not sex?” I said. I was just joking, of course, but he got all serious. “I have two rules,” he said. “One is to honor and love, and the other is to keep procreation sacred.”

I have only one rule, and that’s that I refuse to have only one child. Only children like Berne and Dave end up with this idea that everything their parents do is because of them. Children with brothers and sisters, like me and Sarah, have it better. We learn to talk, to joke, to watch as power shifts, to spare the feelings of others, to wait and see.

There are many examples, but I can only think of one now. When I was about eight, and Sarah was about ten, our daddy lost his job in the post office. For about six weeks, he was at home, and he was driving everybody crazy, rearranging the items in the kitchen, polishing things he’d never looked at before, let alone polished. The main thing he did was ask us to play catch in the yard. Every hour of every day it seemed like he wanted to play catch: to go outside and toss a tennis ball back and forth. He said it soothed him. For some funny reason, he wanted only one of us out there at a time. Probably because it doubled the amount of time he could spend playing catch. One day, Sarah was out there for about an hour, and then she ran in and took a popsicle out of the freezer. “I’m not going back out,” she said. “You go.” She sat there sucking on the popsicle, and when I asked her if that was more important than our daddy’s feelings, she shrugged. “It’s hot out there,” she said. “And I can’t make him feel better. He thinks I can, but I can’t.”

I didn’t want to go outside either, so I didn’t. After about twenty minutes, our daddy still hadn’t come inside, and my mom told me I had better go out and see what was keeping Frank. She always called him Frank, even to me. I went to the yard and found him sitting on the back stairs, bouncing the tennis ball between his knees. “You ready?” he said.

I shook my head. “Just coming to see what’s keeping you.”

“God damn,” he said, and threw the ball over the back fence, as far as it could go.

SARAH AND I WERE CLOSE. She was only two years older, which meant that all the things that happened to me were fresh in her memory. Getting your period, kissing, going to second base, but also other stuff, like how to dress on your first day in school, and how to hold a cigarette so that you didn’t look like you were imitating someone from the movies. She was always a little louder than me and a little wilder. When she was sixteen, she was going with this boy and she got pregnant, and she had one of her friends drive her down south of Lincoln for an abortion. She made me promise not to tell our mom or dad, and I didn’t. After that she was afraid that she couldn’t get pregnant again, and maybe she was right, because she didn’t from the next guy, whom she went with for two years, and she didn’t with the guy after that, whom she lived with for a year, and she didn’t with Ed. Right at the beginning of her time with Ed, our dad died when he had a stroke while driving, and for a few weeks we talked every day on the telephone. Our mother was sick by then, too, with lung cancer, and she was in and out of the hospital. I hope she goes soon, Sarah said. She needs to be with Frank. That was the other thing about only children: when parents passed, there was no one who felt the same exact things you were feeling.

WHEN DAVE CAME TO LIVE in the barn, he told me he was going to start a new life. “No more drinking,” he said, “and no more girls.”

“Good,” I said. “We can begin our new lives together.” He broke both rules the first week—I saw a small box of empty bottles stacked against the wall, and once I knocked on the barn door and heard noise inside, but no one answered.

When I asked him about it, he denied that there were any girls. “I told you,” he said. “I have a new life now.” He was propped up on pillows on a narrow board he used as his bed, sketching with a piece of charcoal.

“What are you drawing?” I said.

“Pictures of the things I can’t do anymore,” he said.

I didn’t care what kind of rules he broke. What did I care? Berne was less generous. He grumbled about Dave: Why would we let a man like that into our home, especially when we were trying to begin our own life together? I could see him getting angrier and angrier, but it wasn’t like Berne to do anything other than grumble. Finally, he asked me flat-out if there had ever been anything between me and Dave, and I said absolutely not, and he asked me if I was telling him the truth, and I just stared at him like he was crazy.

Sarah asked me why I didn’t tell Berne the truth. “Because he wouldn’t understand,” I said.

“I guess not,” she said. “Who would understand that a nice girl like you ever had a thing for that dirty little

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