Steven Wingate is the author of several books, including Of Fathers and Fire (Nebraska, 2019), the award-winning Wifeshopping, and Thirty-One Octets: Incantations and Meditations. He is an associate professor of English at South Dakota State University. The following is an excerpt from his newest novel, The Leave-Takers (Nebraska, 2021).
Laynie reached the point on Jacob’s map that said LEFT AT DEAD ROADHOUSE and slowed to examine the ugly brown building with its windows boarded up and shot-out BUDWEISER signs on three sides. One sign called it RAY’S TAVERN and another CORNER BAR, but neither identity had stuck. Would her own new South Dakota identity stick, whatever it chose to be? She followed the last direction on Jacob’s map: TURN LEFT AFTER ANTELOPE LAKE.
Laynie caught a glimpse of water ahead of her, with the slightest skin of ice along one edge, then turned at a mailbox and a sign that said Chambrell Road. A nice name, a road she could live on. It sounded French, though an extra e at the end would make it more so. The gravel road switchbacked up a hill, and at points a big white house at the top revealed itself before shyly hiding from view. A final climb led her to two square columns of brick holding up a metal archway—aluminum, it looked like—with letters spelling COCKLEBUR FARM affixed to two curved bars.
One of Jacob’s early metal projects, she guessed, and she was right. The house was two stories high, with a magnificent covered wraparound porch on the first floor and a smaller one on the second, which Laynie knew that Jacob would want to make love on at every opportunity. The place looked well cared for, which she expected, because Jacob knew how to put a pleasant surface on even the most rickety skeleton. The driveway led her around back, where patterns on the gravel suggested Jacob’s preferred parking spot. She took it without compunction. Farther on was a huge red barn, and behind her were three stumpy metal silos—though Jacob would later tell her to call them grain bins—and an ancient-looking outhouse. She locked her car because she was from LA, then unlocked it because she was in South Dakota now, then headed up the well-worn steps of the wraparound porch. There was a great rocking chair by the back door that she promised herself to sit on at the first opportunity, even if it meant wearing three coats.
But she needed rest more, and went inside to find a spare bedroom. It turned out to be upstairs, the first door on the left, and she knew when she walked in that it must have once belonged to Jacob’s dead brother. As Laynie settled onto the bed, she had no idea of the place’s history of hosting wayward souls or how perfectly she fit in with its history. Many before her had slept in that room and pondered the same burly, irascible issues that faced her, though most were navy men. The house had been built in 1920 by a World War I bombardier named Olin Darson, whose infirm parents had subdivided their farm in his absence to stay afloat. When his folks died five years later, Olin opened up the house to his fellow veterans, who’d come home to a different America than they’d left and hoped that the open skies of South Dakota would help them trade the label of useless vet for another one. Some became plumber. Some became drunk. Some became fireman. Some failed to achieve any identity at all and drifted farther west.
One of those who slept in the room bore the name Roland Astrin as well as the labels sniper and one screw loose. He liked the house so much that in 1927 he used his gambling winnings to buy it from Olin Darson, who took the money to Kansas City and disappeared from human history. Astrin impregnated a woman named Teresa Flint, who claimed to be a quarter-Portuguese but was actually half-Shoshone, and a week after the Wall Street crash of 1929, they welcomed a child named Rhonda into the world. They married a short time later, and the house continued to serve as a way station for the displaced. The family survived Prohibition and the Great Depression thanks to Roland’s whiskey still.
In 1958 a Korean War U.S. Navy vet from Boston named Edward Hollins Nassedrine decided that he needed to get as far away from the ocean as possible before he became a navy lifer. He asked around and learned about the Astrin house through a fellow sailor’s father, who’d stayed there twenty years earlier. The continental pole of inaccessibility in North America—the farthest point from any ocean—was actually five hours southwest, in Allen, South Dakota, but the house outside Clark was close enough for him.
When Ed Nassedrine called the number he’d been given, Rhonda Astrin—over for her weekly dinner with Mom and Dad—picked up the phone because Teresa was busy taking a ham out of the oven. Rhonda didn’t have the heart to turn a vet down, and by the time her mother got to the phone, it was too late to stop Ed from coming. He hitchhiked out, stayed in the tiny spare bedroom on the second floor, and found a job as a welder. Four months later he proposed to Rhonda Astrin. They got married and tried valiantly but without success to have children, and eventually her parents died and left them the house.
Laynie didn’t know any of this history, and Jacob only knew Ed’s hitchhiking tale and the legend of Roland’s still. When Jacob and his brother Daniel arrived from Boston, freshly orphaned, Ed and Rhonda didn’t want them to know the house’s long history of giving shelter to the out-of-luck and the transitory. They wanted to exude stability—a specifically blue-collar stability based on frugality, continuous hard work, and not blowing off so much steam that the fire inside you went out. They never told the boys that the room used to have nicknames: Chambrell Road Lost and Found, Astrin Home for the Wayward, Stray Man Depot. They didn’t know that dozens, if not hundreds, of people had fallen asleep in that room while their heads spun with uncertainty, doubt, hope, clandestine and sometimes illegal machinations, and the all-pervasive fear of failure.
Laynie didn’t need to know that such restless emotions were embedded in the DNA of the room in order to feel their force. She slept until the sinking sun hit the window, then unzipped her suitcase and stared at her things. Nothing she owned would help her survive a South Dakota winter. Nothing she was suggested survival either. Too small, too delicate, too birdlike. But she had to make it through because her old self wasn’t exactly surviving in LA either. Her old self barely clung to life. Here she could drag it up from the ground, rebuild it, rehabilitate it.
Or could she? Laynie looked out the window and saw only the unfamiliar. Only a landscape that was part of other people’s psyches. If I can pick myself up here, she reasoned, I can pick myself up anywhere.
“And if you can’t?” her real voice asked. Then the light outside brightened—a physical reality caused by the angle of the sun, not some trick of perception—and Laynie brightened too. She pictured herself years later, long after meeting Jacob in Hot Springs had faded into memory, and knew that this instant would echo in her mind as the moment she truly moved in at Cocklebur Farm.