I smile every time my screen door slams. It’s a relic of another era, with a floppy frame of weathered wood, too-loose screening, and a skinny coiled spring that takes its time deciding to close. Eventually, though, it slams. And every time it slams, I think of—Iowa. I almost said I think of home, but you can’t really call home someplace you didn’t grow up, can you? Except in a way I did. Anyway, I’ll just say I think of Iowa.
On my first real paying job, one of the librarians I worked for became a good friend. In the manner of the teenager I was then, I would talk to her about whatever was on my mind. One day she said to me, “You’re looking for something—and I hope you find it.”
This is the story of a search I didn’t know I was on, for something I didn’t know existed.
Some of the details have faded in my memory, but I will never forget how I felt when I got off the bus from Chicago after hours of riding past cornfields and stopping at one little town after another. I was expecting Dan and his friends from the commune, but no one met the bus. It was a gorgeous spring day—Memorial Day, in fact—and while I was waiting I got to watch part of the parade. I love parades, even not-very-big ones. I remember the excitement of the day—the marching bands, the waving flags, the cheering people (I missed the solemn part), the anticipation of my new life in the country. The incompatibility of town and commune didn’t strike me until much later. That day it all ran together in my veins, and my heart was dancing with excitement.
I must have been quite a sight, although if anyone was looking at me I didn’t notice. But there I was, in my homemade cotton peasant skirt and blouse, lugging an old suitcase and a rolled-up sleeping bag—all my worldly possessions except for a few sentimental treasures that I’d stored in my sister’s basement with her little girl’s outgrown toys and baby furniture.
One of the men from the commune—not Dan, though—finally showed. He picked me out in the crowd, no problem. I’d never met this guy, but I had no problem picking him out either. His hair was long and kind of matted. He was shirtless and had a dark tan and a very manly smell—aging sweat laced with pot and manure. I found out later his name was Greg. He greeted me with a grunt and a jerk of his head toward a side street. Bye-bye, parade! I grabbed my luggage and fell in behind him, until we got to an old station wagon that looked like it had spent the night in a junkyard.
In a few minutes we had left the town and run out of pavement. It was a long, dusty drive and a bit unnerving—the floor of the station wagon was rotted out and had holes clear through. So mostly what I remember is the cornfields going by beside us and the dirt road going by underneath. There were houses along the way, and barns, but I didn’t much notice them at the time. I didn’t dare ask how far we had to go. I doubt Greg could have heard me anyway—the muffler was rotted out too, and it was a very noisy ride.
The drive seemed to last forever. Just when I could hardly stand the wait, the most remarkable house came into view. It was deserted and desolate: two stories, all brick, on a tall foundation—a perfect, solitary cube made stately by its nakedness. No porch, no outbuildings, no bushes, just one old dead tree out back. There were two tall, narrow windows on either side of the front door, and matching ones all around on both floors, broken out years ago. It must have been splendid in its day—the kind of house that would have belonged to the local doctor or a prominent politician. I turned and stared back at it as long as I could see it. I even forgot for a few moments where we were going.
Suddenly Greg made a hard right, and we began bouncing down a long and lumpy driveway—if that’s what you call two ruts through the weeds—heading toward some buildings in a grove of trees.
Greg pulled up between the house and the barn, turning off the engine and letting the station wagon lurch to a stop. He had disappeared behind the barn long before I had wrestled my luggage out of the car. No one was around. I stood still, staring at the barn, trying to puzzle out what to do next. Suddenly I heard a screen door swing open behind me and then slam shut. I jumped and turned around. A short, sturdy-looking young woman bounded down the steps. She looked to be a bit younger than me. She was browned from the sun, a little plump, and she was wearing a broad smile.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Susie. You must be Dan’s friend.”
I liked her instantly. She grabbed my suitcase and took me inside to show me around. “I’ll take you to your room,” she said. There were three more-or-less rectangles marked out with duct tape on the well-aged wood floor in the living room, and diagonal lines of tape marking a pathway. Two of the rectangles were piled high with bedding and odds and ends—a guitar, some books, a weary-looking houseplant. Susie plunked my suitcase down in the empty rectangle. “Welcome home!” she said, and giggled. Her eyes went to my skirt. “Bring any jeans along?” she asked casually. I stammered something and took the hint. The skirt went into the darkest corner of my suitcase until I could sneak it out with the trash. God bless Susie for clueing me in.
I met the rest of them when they came in from the garden. I was about to greet Dan enthusiastically, like the old buddy I thought he was, but when he didn’t meet my eyes I thought better of it. They were all hot, grumpy, and silent. “Don’t take it personal,” Susie whispered to me.
For a couple of days, I mostly watched and listened and tried to stay out of the way. In retrospect, that was a really good plan. I found out that Greg and Joan lived in one bedroom, Susie and Rob in the other. Dan, Pete, and Dave shared the parlor, and the living room was for the women—Laura and Betty and me.
Maximum occupancy of the house was 10. Joan saw to that. She had bought the place, cash. If we needed anything major, she paid for it. She was the one who had laid out the spaces in the living room, and she was the one who laid down the law. “What Joan says, goes,” said Susie. Nobody liked her much (except Greg), but you had to hand it to her for holding the place together. Two years is a long time for 10 or so people to live in one house without a catastrophic fight.
I guess the house was kind of crummy-looking, but for me it was love at first sight. It reminded me of the old houses my Southern relatives lived in when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of the creaky floors and bare light bulbs, the faintly musty smell coupled with the scent of years of ashes from the wood stove. From the very beginning, it was home to me.
Maybe you miss the sixties—or maybe you missed them. This lively story follows a somewhat clueless college grad who left the straight and narrow in 1970, looking for what she missed while she was sitting classrooms and her peers were . . . otherwise engaged.
As she explores the new world of a commune in rural Iowa, she encounters people and ideas she never dreamed existed. Moving through and beyond the drugs and politics of hippie culture, she finds, eventually, what she didn’t know she was looking for.
Whether this story mirrors your own experience or recounts facets of the sixties you never encountered, you’ll enjoy this colorful and inspiring tale. It’s a quick read full of rich descriptions, engaging characters, and unexpected turns.
About the Author
Catherine B. Fitzgerald lives in the small community of Emigrant in Paradise Valley, Montana, with her artist husband. This is her first novel.