Iowa Writes

RYAN VAN METER
excerpt from Discovery


In the kitchen, dinner is underway. My grandmother is measuring rice, peeling carrots, sugaring a pie. She works so quickly and mechanically, without any words—the way she does almost anything—that she doesn't notice me sliding my feet across the blue linoleum and down the hall. I know enough not to try opening the big door to go outside, so I wander down to the bedrooms, looking for a distraction. In the room where Garrett and I sleep, my dad's room when he was a boy in this house, I sit on the bed, bounce a little and stare longingly out the window through walnut branches at the chicken coop.

There's a large closet, and rummaging through things might give a few minutes of pleasure. On the shelves, I expect to find old toys of my dad's, thinking of the shelves of my own closet—hand-puppets, Candyland, my potholder loom—stuck there in the silent dark without me. And here is a Davy Crocket lunchbox, a glass jar packed with plastic soldiers, a metal car with doors that open, and strange orange numbered tags with barbed points that I'll find out later are pushed through the velvet of a cow's ear to mark them. On the bottom shelf, shoved beneath a lace tablecloth and a crocheted blanket is a large white box; inside it, wrapped in tissue paper, a blue dress.

Shaking it out, smoothing away wrinkles and laying it across the carpet, I know immediately this is a dress for a girl, not a woman. The length is for a body about my height. Stiff navy satin with short puffy sleeves, wiggly gold designs threaded into the tight middle part—the pleated embellished bodice—cloth heavy and lush as I lift the skirt to trace the perfect stitches of the hem and peek underneath. My Dad has a sister, a tall regal woman named Aunt Karen, so maybe this is hers from a long time ago.

In the kitchen, dinner is underway. My grandmother is measuring rice, peeling carrots, sugaring a pie. She works so quickly and mechanically, without any words—the way she does almost anything—that she doesn't notice me sliding my feet across the blue linoleum and down the hall. I know enough not to try opening the big door to go outside, so I wander down to the bedrooms, looking for a distraction. In the room where Garrett and I sleep, my dad's room when he was a boy in this house, I sit on the bed, bounce a little and stare longingly out the window through walnut branches at the chicken coop.

There's a large closet, and rummaging through things might give a few minutes of pleasure. On the shelves, I expect to find old toys of my dad's, thinking of the shelves of my own closet—hand-puppets, Candyland, my potholder loom—stuck there in the silent dark without me. And here is a Davy Crocket lunchbox, a glass jar packed with plastic soldiers, a metal car with doors that open, and strange orange numbered tags with barbed points that I'll find out later are pushed through the velvet of a cow's ear to mark them. On the bottom shelf, shoved beneath a lace tablecloth and a crocheted blanket is a large white box; inside it, wrapped in tissue paper, a blue dress.

Shaking it out, smoothing away wrinkles and laying it across the carpet, I know immediately this is a dress for a girl, not a woman. The length is for a body about my height. Stiff navy satin with short puffy sleeves, wiggly gold designs threaded into the tight middle part—the pleated embellished bodice—cloth heavy and lush as I lift the skirt to trace the perfect stitches of the hem and peek underneath. My Dad has a sister, a tall regal woman named Aunt Karen, so maybe this is hers from a long time ago.

I throw my T-shirt into a sweaty lump in the corner, and standing in front of the mirror on the back of the bedroom door, I pull the dress over my head and my shorts, and see that yes, it does seem made for someone my size. The bottom hem just skims the carpet as I shift my weight left and then right, my eyes in the mirror watching the full skirt tilting like a bell. I gather the folds of the dress in my hands, the way the women do on Little House on the Prairie, and bustle around for a minute or two before the door opens.

My grandmother. She just stands there and keeps her hand on the knob. She doesn't say anything, only stares at me with her serious face—the same face she always wears.

"I found this," I say. My hands clasp each other behind my back. I look at the T-shirt wadded up on the floor near her feet, but she doesn't seem to notice it. The fact that I took off my T-shirt before I put on the dress makes me feel more embarrassed, as if I'm somehow exposed in front of her, though the dress covers me, neck to toes. Suddenly my arms feel cold and the trim encircling the collar scratches my neck. She stays there, utterly still, and doesn't speak.

I say, "It fits me," and sort of twist side to side.

"It does. It does," she says. Her lips press together, bunching up like my two handfuls of blue satin, and then she lets them go. "I was coming in here to see if you would set the table for Grandma."

She knows I love setting the table because she taught me how.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


RYAN VAN METER

Ryan Van Meter's essay collection If You Knew Then What I Know Now was published in 2011. His work has also been published in journals and magazines and selected for anthologies including Best American Essays. A recent graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa, he lives in California and teaches creative writing at The University of San Francisco. More information about Ryan and his work can be found at www.ryanvanmeter.net

This page was first displayed
on November 07, 2011

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