2011 fall fiction 1000 distantcousins

by Lacy Arnett

As a girl in high school, Geraldine combed the St. Johns’ bookmobile for books about her famous relative, Herbert Hoover: first cousin to her great grandmother on her mother’s side. She pored over his biographies like magazine horoscopes, looking for clues to her own destiny, which turned out to be a decade of goat farming with Nolan Struggs.

Driving her daughters into town for school one morning, Geraldine saw the bookmobile—an airstream bus streaked in a chipped maroon—parked in front of the new library, advertising a book sale. She stopped there when she picked them up that afternoon. It was her girls’ first time inside; they usually borrowed at the school library. Geraldine herself hadn’t been in years—not since she’d had Mia. Their farm was thirteen miles out of town and it had been easier for Geraldine to borrow books from her mother.

“Everything’s going for a quarter,” Grant Tethers lamented. He’d worn the same red flannel and thick, dark glasses since Geraldine had been coming to the bookmobile as a girl. Inside smelled the same, too: a sweltering mixture of mildew and mothballs coming from the thin carpet and the warped wood shelves and the pages of the books themselves. She ran her hand over the covered spines. Her veins were puckered and bright—the result of years straining goat teats.

Mia and Tanya crouched in the youth section. Geraldine had told them they could choose five books each. She found a western for Nolan. A few mystery novels for herself, the two Hoover biographies she’d combed through as a girl, and then, crammed between them, a small pamphlet-like book she didn’t recognize: Musings on the Boy, “Bert” Hoover. It was a collection of vignettes, compiled by a Mrs. Ursula G. Jones from West Branch, Iowa, where Hoover had spent the early part of his boyhood. Geraldine sat on the footstool she’d used to reach the book and fanned through it.

The author had written a preface: Some stories from those of us who knew Bert before he was neither orphan, engineer, millionaire, President, or otherwise, showing that folks are just regular folks before they are famous ones—prone to mischief and goodness, pain and kindness just like the rest of us.

Before Geraldine’s mother died last spring, she’d given Geraldine a framed portrait of the man. A black and white print torn out of a magazine featuring past presidents. A reminder of your heritage, she’d told her daughter.

Nolan didn’t understand his mother-in-law’s need to mention Hoover all the time. It made folks uneasy, he told Geraldine. Made it seem like she was putting on airs. In Nolan’s mind, a distant relative who hadn’t bequeathed you any money wasn’t worth bothering about.

Geraldine had agreed with Nolan when they were first in love; she had no interest in claiming any man other than him, anyway. And even years later, after realizing that she’d mistaken Nolan’s brooding distain for thoughtfulness, his dominance for confidence, she kept silent about her Hoover connection to keep peace.

She and the girls set their stack of books on the counter and paid with change jangling in the car console to avoid Nolan saying they had wasted grocery money. At home, she cleared the top bookshelf and placed the Hoover finds between bronze bookends the shape of apples—a wedding gift from her mother. She found the framed Hoover portrait and a photograph of her mother—taken when she was eighteen—and stood them at opposite bookends.

The resemblance, if any, was slight. Hoover was broad faced with a high forehead and cleft chin. Her mother’s features were thin—squinted eyes, slender lips, narrow nose. Geraldine and her daughters looked the same.

Her mother had taught the girls pride in the connection. Not everyone can say they’re related to a president, she’d tell her granddaughters solemnly as they sat together in the front pew on Sundays. You’re part of a special bloodline. And then, last spring, Geraldine’s mother unexpectedly developed pneumonia, expelling a great deal of that very blood in her final coughing fit.

“What’s this, some kind of shrine?” Nolan stopped at the shelf when he came inside. He was leaving for a goat auction in Phoenix that same afternoon and would be gone through the weekend. Geraldine and her daughters had traveled with him last year—both Mia and Tanya’s first time in a hotel. The girls had begged to go with him again, but Nolan, still reeling from the death of their best two nannies—lost to impossibly posterior births—said no. “It’s not a vacation,” he told them harshly, and took Thom, the hired man, instead.

That evening, through the faded lace curtains on her bedroom window, Geraldine watched Harney, Thom’s son, wrestle the goats into their milking pens. Mia helped by standing ready to close the gate. She was only eleven, but Geraldine saw how she watched Harney, how she followed him with an overeager shyness; she didn’t mind that so much as the way Harney sometimes tilted his head when Mia spoke to him. That and the fact that he was at least seventeen. Just the day before, he had come to the farm wearing a new cowboy hat and gave Mia his old one.

They’d finished corralling the goats and were talking at the fence. Geraldine couldn’t see their faces for the shadows cast by their brims. Their figures reminded her of the way she and Nolan used to stand, back when he’d been a ranch hand at her uncle’s place. In those days, they’d go for long drives in the evenings. Once, Nolan had taken her out into the sand dunes and they’d lain on blankets in the bed of his truck, watching the stars. The moon giving off light bright enough to read by. Geraldine had brought an anthology of poetry. One of the textbooks from her first and only college correspondence course. She read a Keats’ poem out to him—couldn’t remember which one now—and he listened with closed eyes, cradling the base of his spine with up-stretched hands. Sounds nice, he said when she’d finished. She still had the thick volume. Kept it in her nightstand drawer all these years, almost like a relic. In the long and lonely weeks after Mia was born, Geraldine had mentioned this memory as her favorite of their courtship.

Nolan scoffed. All I remember is that you didn’t know any more of what that poem meant than I did.

Downstairs, Geraldine found Tanya reading one of the new books at the kitchen table. “Call your sister and Harney in for supper?” She ladled out the stew she’d made that morning and pulled a loaf of bread from the fridge. The girls poured ketchup into their bowls. Harney spread his bread with mayonnaise.

“I’ve been thinking,” Geraldine said, “that we might take a trip to Hoover Dam.”

The three looked up from blowing steam off their spoons.

“When?” Mia asked.

“Tomorrow morning. You’ll be able to handle the goats for a day or so, won’t you, Harney?”

Tanya gasped, choking for a moment on inhaled broth.

“What about Dad?” Mia wondered.

Nolan would call the trip reckless. A whim they couldn’t afford. But Geraldine thought they might be able to board another horse this fall. And she could always take the girls over to rummage through the neighbor’s closet for hand-me-downs before school started in a few weeks. “I think he’d want us to have a good time while he’s gone,” she told them.

The girls smiled at each other and kicked their legs under the table in excitement. Harney bowed his head to his bowl and ate, spilling broth down his shirt in his haste.

* * *

They left early the next day after helping Harney with morning chores. Geraldine packed a change of clothes and her stack of Hoover books in her mother’s old hard-case grip. It was a six hour drive from St. Johns to Hoover Dam. Geraldine kept the front windows down on the freeway to keep from suffocating in the August heat. In her rearview mirror, the girls’ hair whipped furiously. More than seeing the Dam, they were looking forward to swimming in the motel pool in Henderson, where Geraldine had reserved a room.

“Is it an outdoor pool, Mom, or an indoor pool?” Mia wanted to know.

Neither of them could swim. St. Johns had filled in its community pool when Geraldine was a girl after two children drowned in a single summer. At the hotel pool in Phoenix during the goat auction last year, the girls had bounced on their tiptoes at the edge of the shallow end, staying in the water until they were purple and pruned.

They stopped at a gas station to eat an early lunch of cheese sandwiches and goat’s milk under the shade of a nearby Ramada. Geraldine read out to them from the Hoover Dam chapter of one of the biographies.

“Have you ever seen it?”

Geraldine shook her head. Growing up, her family never owned a car that would have made it that far. “But we’re a part of it,” she told them, thinking of her mother.

Traffic crawled on the winding highway approaching the dam and they nearly missed the last tour of the day. They peered over the railing at the stories of concrete and calm water, awed by the dam’s enormity. By their ability to stand on it without feeling any closer than they had miles away, catching glimpses of the giant white wall from the car windows.

“Look at these red mountains,” Mia pointed outward, toward the Canyon walls. “They go on forever.”

They rode the elevator below, to see the cogs of the Dam. The tour guide bragged about the power it made—how the generators funneled electricity to five states. Geraldine marveled at his pride. Besides pulling a government salary, what did he have to do with any of it? Geraldine and her girls, on the other hand, could cite their heritage every time a million people flipped a light switch.

“I’m hungry,” Tanya said to her mother over the whirring turbines.

When the tour ended, Geraldine thanked the guide. “This is wonderful to see,” she told him.

The man wore a pith helmet hat even indoors. “Where you folks from?”

Geraldine told him.

“Not too far, then. Had two groups from Japan today and a German couple this morning. We get all kinds here.”

“We’re actually related to Herbert Hoover,” Geraldine told him.

“Is that so?”

“He was a cousin. On my mother’s side.”

The man stroked his face. A few wiry nose hairs settled on top of his hand as he rested it over his mouth for a moment. “I’ve got an aunt who’s really into genealogy. Traced us all the way back to Napoleon Bonaparte! I guess we’re all related to someone like that if you go back far enough.”

Geraldine had never met anyone with a comparable heritage. She considered hers greater, though. Less diluted by time. Even so, walking away, her shoulders slumped a little.

* * *

Traffic heading west toward Vegas had worsened to a stand still. The girls ate candy bars Geraldine bought from a vending machine outside the visitor’s center restrooms. Without a breeze coming through the windows, their t-shirts clung to their backs with sweat, even after the sun went down.

They arrived at the motel late. The pool was closed, the clerk informed them coolly—drained earlier that week due to a “fecal incident.”

The girls, tired and hot, looked as though they might cry.

“But the hot tub is open till eleven,” the man suggested.

They went to their room and hurriedly changed. Geraldine stopped to look through the glass doors leading out to the pool area: a couple soaking in the hot tub. A handful of people standing around a smoking grill in the corner. A boy about Mia’s age sitting with his feet dangling into the empty pool, hunched over a portable video game.

“Do you still want to go in?”

The girls nodded. They’d grown considerably since last summer and their suits pulled at their crotches and necklines. Geraldine glanced at her own reflection in the glass: thin and flat chested in her black suit. Stark tan lines at her neck and arms. Stomach slightly pooched; she held it in as she opened the door for the girls.

The group outside grew silent as they approached. Geraldine could hear the beeping of the boy’s game above the roar of Jacuzzi bubbles. Mia and Tanya hung back, uncertain now. Geraldine lowered herself into the foamy water. The girls quickly followed.

A few dying palm trees and a low chain link fence were the only things separating the pool area from the neighborhood of shake-panel duplexes surrounding the motel.

The couple across from them sat close together. The man’s chest hair was dark and long, carried up in the sway of the water. The woman had large and overly-tanned cleavage, lapped by gray bubbles. In one corner, Geraldine noticed a pizza crust caught in the swirl of a jet stream.

A woman at the grill cackled.

“Keep it down!” the tanned woman yelled out to her. “This is a hotel. Some people are trying to sleep!”

Mia and Tanya scooted into their mother.

A man, laughing, threw a handful of bright orange tortilla chips at the woman. All but one fell short of the water. It joined the whirling pizza crust.

The woman laughed, too. Her teeth straight but stained. “Never mind them,” she winked at Geraldine. “Just a bunch of hotel crashers.” She motioned toward the duplexes behind them. “We all live over yonder. My friend Angel’s boyfriend manages this place. Let’s us use it for a neighborhood pool.”

“How nice.”

“Where you ladies from?”

“Arizona.”

“Not your first time here, then.”

“It is, actually.”

They were going to love it, she told them. “You can get prime rib most anywhere for less than you pay for hotcakes!” She leaned forward. “And I know a place here in Henderson that will let kids sit at the slots.” She nodded to the boy playing his video game. “My Turley over there won twenty-two dollars yesterday!”

Mia’s eyes widened. Her father paid her five dollars a month for helping to feed the goats after school.

The tortilla chip had jumped the whirlpool and was making its way toward them. Geraldine wanted to get out. “Are you girls too hot?”

They shook their heads.

“Shame about the pool, right?” The woman lowered her voice and pointed at the group behind her through her hand. “Angel’s boy did it. He’s almost five and still not totally potty trained.” She widened her eyes, knowingly. “I don’t know about your girls, but my Turley was using the toilet at two! Which is young for a boy.”

“We shouldn’t stay too long,” Geraldine said to Mia.

“Big day tomorrow,” the woman nodded. “What are you going to see first?”

“We’re heading back in the morning,” Geraldine told her. She wanted to be home before nightfall to catch up around the farm and shore up against Nolan’s certain fury.

“Aren’t you at least going to drive through Vegas?”

Geraldine didn’t think so. “We came mainly to see Hoover Dam.”

The woman nodded slowly, puzzled. She’d driven over but never stopped. “Do they take you underwater?”

“Sort of. But you can’t see out or anything.”

“Oh,” the woman sat back, disappointed. The girls had reacted the same—expecting aquarium glass.

Now the tortilla chip floated in front of Tanya. Geraldine wanted to grab for it and fling it out, but thought it would seem rude. She wished they’d stayed home. That she’d shown her daughters pictures in her books, rather than thrusting the scale of the actual dam upon them. How could any one person compare to such a thing? Even Hoover himself hadn’t been equal to the dam. The guide told them how his name had been stripped from the structure for a period of years after his presidency, such was the disappointment—the resentment—of the people over their hardships. Geraldine double-checked it in her Hoover biography, back in the car.

She imagined Hoover reading of the change in the newspaper, sinking a little into his leather armchair, deflated. She felt foolish now for having taken up her mother’s hope in the connection. Any great man might have a thousand distant cousins.

“We’re related to Herbert Hoover,” Mia told the woman.

“No kidding!” She perked up. “Wasn’t he the president, or something?” The man beside her smirked.

“The 31st president,” Mia told her. “He’s our cousin. That’s why we went to see his dam.”

The woman gasped, awed. “Your cousin? No kidding!” She hit the man’s chest. “We’re in a hot tub with the president’s cousins!”

Geraldine watched the woman’s face slowly form the same baffled question she’d often asked herself: what was she—Hoover’s posterity—doing here? Not just here in this motel, sandwiched between a strip mall and the sort of neighborhood that sent its boys over the fence to mess in the pool. Here. How had she let herself become so defeated?

“He wasn’t a very popular president,” Geraldine told the woman, by way of explanation. She could feel her daughters eyes on her.

“Yeah?”

“People blamed him for the Depression. For not doing enough to help them.”

“Oh.” The woman relaxed into her seat, back on equal footing.

“Meat’s done!” a man called out from the grill. The boy, Turley, scrambled up from his seat by the pool.

“You hungry?” The woman asked.

Geraldine shook her head.

As the woman climbed out, Geraldine noticed her swimwear: a faded pink bra and thin panties. The man, his boxers dripping, followed her out.

* * *

Up in their room, Geraldine ran the bath. The girls peeled off their suits and got into the tub together, something they hadn’t done in years.

Geraldine sat on the toilet next to the tub, wrapped in a towel, watching them wring out washcloths over each other’s heads.

“Mom,” Mia asked, “was Herbert Hoover a bad president?”

“Some people thought he was.”

Mia lathered her sister’s hair with shampoo. “But was he?”

Geraldine thought of a story she’d seen as she’d flipped through the Musings on the Boy, “Bert” Hoover book. She found it in her suitcase and read out to the girls the story told by Esker Thornock, a farmhand who boarded with the Hoovers after Herbert’s father died of heart failure when Herbert was six. Esker remembered the boy finding a wounded possum under the porch one spring. A victim of the dog.

“He brung it to me because he knowed I had a way with animals. He seen me raise Mrs. Perkins horse from near death a few weeks before. But a sour stomach in a horse is a sight different from a half-eaten possum with mange. Bert wrapped the thing in a blanket. Asked to keep it in my room so his mother wouldn’t find it. He just prayed and prayed over that animal. Even when it died after supper, he kept on praying.”

Geraldine paused.

“Oh,” Mia said, relieved. Geraldine’s mother had taught her granddaughters that faith was a powerful virtue. A saving belief that covered many sins. Mia rinsed Tanya’s hair with a cupful of water. The suds collected around the girl’s thin white waist.

Geraldine read on silently the rest of Esker’s story: about Bert burying the possum in a corner of the garden with a handful of rhubarb seeds. That summer, when the plant shot up—dark purple and green—Herbert brought the stalks to his mother to make a pie. But Esker “didn’t fancy tasting rotten possum in my pie.”

He couldn’t have known Hoover’s mother would contract typhoid fever and die the following year but he took pity on the boy, so insistent that Esker try a slice. “I was glad I did,” he told Mrs. Ursula G. Jones, who took his story down longhand, “for it was the sweetest thing I ever et.”

About the Author

Lacy Arnett lives in southeast Arizona with her husband and two daughters. She is a low-residency MFA student at Lesley University in Cambridge. This piece is her first published fiction.

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