Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy. My father said there was a time when he would have been able to stop her, and I wasn't sure if he meant a time in our lives when she would have listened to him, or a time in history when the Desert Valley Sheriff's Posse would have been allowed to chase after her with torches and drag her back to our house by her yellow hair. He had been a member of the sheriff's posse since before I was born, and he said that the group was pretty much the same as the Masons, except without the virgin sacrifices. They paid dues, rode their horses in parades, and directed traffic at the rodeo where my sister first laid eyes on her cowboy. Only once in a great while were they called upon for a task of real importance, like clearing a fallen tree from a hunting trail, or pulling a dead girl out of the canal.
Polly Cain disappeared on a Wednesday afternoon, and at first people were talking kidnapping. An eleven-year-old girl was too young to be a runaway, so they figured someone must have snatched her. But then they found her backpack on the dirt road that ran alongside the canal, and soon they called my father. For the two days the sheriff's posse dragged the canal, they traded in their white tuxedo shirts and black-felt Stetsons for rubber waders that came up to their armpits, and they walked shoulder to shoulder through the brown water. I passed them on my way home from school. It was only April, but already the mayflies were starting to hatch off the water, and I watched my father swat them away from his face. I waved and called to him from the side of the canal, but he clenched his jaw and didn't look at me.
"We found that girl today," he said when he came home the next afternoon. I was making Kool-Aid in a plastic pitcher, and he stuck his finger in and then licked it. "Tangled in one of the grates."
"Is she dead?" I asked, and he stared at me.
"You stay away from that canal when you're walking home, Alice," he said.
"Will there be a funeral?" I pictured myself like a woman in the movies, standing beside the grave in a black dress and thick sunglasses, too sad to cry.
"What do you care?"
"We were partners in shop class. We were making a lantern." The truth was that Polly had been making the lantern while I watched. She had been a good sport about the whole thing and let me hold it when our teacher, Mr. McClusky, walked by, so that he would think I was doing some of the work.
"I don't have time to take you to a funeral, Alice," my father said, and he put his hand on top of my head. "There's just too much work around here. I've already lost two days."
I nodded and stirred the Kool-Aid with a wooden spoon. There was always too much work. My father owned a stable. Between posse meetings he gave riding lessons and bred and raised horses, which he sold to people who fed them apple slices by hand and called them "baby." In the mornings my father and I fed the horses while it was still dark, and I would walk to school shaking hay from my hair and clothing, scratching at the pieces that had fallen down the front of my shirt. In the afternoons we cleaned the stalls and groomed and exercised the horses. It was foaling season, and Dad didn't like to leave the barn even for a minute, in case one of our mares went into labor. It was just as well. I didn't have a black dress.
"You've been a trooper, kid," he said. "When your sister comes back, things will calm down."
He always did this—talked about how my sister would come home and everything would be the way it was. For a while I'd wondered if he might be right. It had all happened so fast. Nona met Jerry on a Sunday, and on Thursday she packed four boxes and a backpack and went off in his pickup truck. Jerry rode broncs on the rodeo circuit and married my sister at a courthouse in Kansas. My father said that Jerry would break his spine riding broncs, and Nona would spend the rest of her life pushing him around in a wheelchair and holding a cup for him to drool into. She wasn't the marrying kind, my father said. She wouldn't be satisfied to spend her life on the outside of an arena, cheering for someone else.
But the months had passed by, and Nona's letters were still filled with smiley faces and exclamation points. Compared with the horse-show circuit, she wrote, rodeos were a dream. She and Jerry ate steak for dinner and slept in motels, which was a big step up from horse shows, where we ate granola bars and drank soda pop and slept in the stalls with the horses so that no one could steal them during the night.
Her letters were always addressed to me. They opened with "Baby Alice," and closed with "Give my love to Mom and Dad." I would leave the letters on the counter for my father to read, which he hardly ever did, and after a few days I would go up to my mother's room and read the letters aloud to her.
My mother had spent nearly my whole life in her bedroom. Nona said that before we came along, our mother had been a star in horse shows, had won left and right, and even had her picture in the paper. She said that one day, when I was still a baby, our mother had handed me to her, said she was tired, and gone upstairs to rest. She never came back down. Dad moved into the guest bedroom so as not to disrupt her, and we were careful to take our shoes off when we walked past her room. She didn't make much of a fuss. She didn't call for extra blankets or crushed ice or quiet. She just stayed in bed with the curtains drawn and watched television without the sound. It was easy to forget she was there.
I would sit on her bed and read Nona's letters to her by the blue light of the TV screen, and she would pat my leg and say, "Real nice. It sounds real nice, doesn't it, Alice?"
I would breathe through my mouth to filter the sour, damp scent of her yellow skin and oily hair. My mother made me say the name of the town each letter had come from, and what I thought it looked like. I pictured the rodeo towns as dry, dusty places with dirty motels and lines of fast-food restaurants, but I tried to be inventive: McCook, Nebraska, had chestnut trees lining every street; Marion, Illinois, had purple sunsets; and Sikeston, Missouri, had a park with a pond in the middle where people could feed ducks. When I couldn't think anymore, I would say that I had to go to the bathroom or that I had to help Dad in the barn, and I would creep out of her bedroom and shut the door behind me.