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Twine Ball Country : Molly Quinn


         The fiberglass rooster peers over the rise of his chest with vacant yellow eyes. I search the sky for something else to attach my gaze to—telephone wire, an airplane, a whisper of cloud—but there's only raw slippery blue. Strange how I'm indifferent about leaving my life in Baton Rouge, but the fifteen-foot rooster makes me feel like there's nothing to look forward to. 


         The map's all over me, attacking. I pin it to my knees, taming it, and trace the yellow line of I-53 until I find the town I'm looking for: Eveleth, home of the World's Largest Hockey Stick and Puck. The thing's got enough wood to build three thousand normal-size hockey sticks, so there's no way we're skipping it, no matter what my sister says.       

         "You want me to drive?" I say. 

         "Are you kidding?" says Morgan. 

         I'm not allowed to even touch the wheel since I totaled her other car, but I offer anyway because she keeps bitching about doing all the driving. You'd think she could at least fake some enthusiasm, seeing as it's the first time the three of us have been together since Virginia came home. My sister doesn't fake anything. I twist around in my seat, and Virginia looks at me with sleepy eyes. She's even cuter since she got rid of her dorky pink glasses. 

         "Hey," I say. "Would you rather see the turtle races in Nisswa or Longville? It's a tough call, because Nisswa's the turtle racing capital of the world, but Longville's where it all began. It's, like, the original." 

         She smiles. "That's up to you, James. You're the expert." 

         "Dude. We're going to Nisswa." 

         I face forward and take a swig of my Super America vanilla frappucino. It's my second one this morning, so I'm hopped up. Virginia's right about me being the expert—I've been on all these roads before because my dad's a trucker and he used to take me along on his routes. It's my job to make sure we hit all the best places in Minnesota. So far the highlights have been the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Rocky Taconite in Silver Bay, and Slammin' Spammy at the Spam Museum in Austin. Now we're going to pass the World's Largest Floating Loon in Silver Lake. 

         "Giant loon alert!" I say. "Twenty miles!" 

         Morgan flicks her cigarette out the window. "For the hundredth time, James, would you put your seatbelt on?" 

         "It makes me feel constricted," I say, but I pull it across my chest. I'm trying to get on her good side because I want to talk her into another day or two on the road. 

         "Hey Morgan," I say. "Wouldn't you like to see the big black duck in Blackduck, Minnesota?" 


         "The big black what in fuckwad, Minnesota?" I want him out of the car. 

         "Duck," says James. "It's a big black duck that the people of Blackduck built for Paul Bunyan. He's, like, Paul's pet. His big, black pet duck." 

         James is quivering from all the coffee he drank. He looks at me with his good eye. The lazy one lolls in a corner, bobbing at the scenery. 

         "I don't know. How far is it?" 

         "Only a couple extra hours on Highway 46—if we had one more day, we could fit it in no problem." 

         "We're both on the schedule for Saturday night," I remind him. James and I work at the CC Club in Minneapolis. I tend bar. He buses dishes and drinks a lot. 

         "They won't mind as long as you call," he says. 

         "I'm not worried about me. It's your job on the line." 

         "Carl always says that, but I'm sure he doesn't mean it." 

         "Actually, he does. Carl really wants to fire you, but I talk him out of it." 

         I've lived through two fucking days of this, and I have to do all the driving because the little shit got a DWI when he crashed my 1968 Impalla. Now I'm stuck with this junky Oldsmobile. The air-conditioner is broken, the vinyl seats are sticky, and the seatbelt digs into my boob. 

         Virginia stares out the window with this look on her face like she's special. I'd like to think she's home because of me, but I'm not going to get my hopes up until we have a real conversation. I don't plan on starting it off. She's the one who disappeared, so she's the one with explaining to do. All I want is for us to be the way we used to, when we didn't have to talk about anything. We just were. 

         I take James's directions. I agree to visit the Sandpaper Museum in Two Harbors. I try not to look at Virginia, but she's sitting in my line of vision behind the rearview mirror. Her bangs hang in her eyes. In the sun it looks like someone poured a bottle of brandy over her head. Everything about her is light and liquid. She looks up, and I'm caught checking her out for the hundredth time this morning. 


         Morgan's eyes seem darker, more penetrating, but maybe it's my imagination; maybe they haven't changed at all. She looks away first, and I resume staring out the window. We pass a lawn ornament store. Jesus, Mary, and the Seven Dwarves gaze across the highway. The rush of our car sets a row of pinwheels twirling.        

         When I walked into the CC Club last week, Morgan was telling off a customer. She wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a thin, soiled tank-top that showed off her dragonfly tattoos. She mixed drinks with a cigarette in her mouth while I spun on a barstool, feeling prissy in my vintage dress and cardigan. I thought Morgan would feel the same way as me—that what happened between us in high-school was kid stuff. Now that her eyes have been on me for days, I'm not sure. 

         When James saw me, he didn't ask questions. He bought us drinks and gave me the news. He'd gone to music school briefly and dropped out. Now he played drums in a band, sometimes they got gigs; I should come see them. His parents had split up, maybe permanently this time. And Morgan was a lesbian now—the now implying that this happened overnight. So, she was out. But our relationship wasn't. 

         By the end of the evening, James convinced me that my life would be incomplete without a visit to Willy the Worm-Man in International Falls. He was certain that Morgan wouldn't mind driving. The three of us together seemed like a good idea: I thought he could talk while Morgan and I got used to each other again. 

         Every town is the same—craft store, liquor store, fudge shop, bar. Christmas World is boarded up for the summer. On the rooftop, plastic reindeer lift their hooves in the August heat. Water towers hover above the highway like visiting planets. I lean my head on the glass and watch the yellow lines on the road slip away.            

         "Stop the car!" says James. "There it is!" 

         I look around. "There what is?" 


         "The World's Largest Floating Loon," I say. 

         Morgan slows down. "You can hardly see it," she says. "Are you sure it's the world's largest?" 

         "It's the largest floating loon. There's a bigger one on dry land in Vergas." 

         We get out of the car for a better look. My legs are shaky from caffeine and sitting still too long. I run to the lake. It feels good to move—my heart pounds, the sweat on my body cools. If I were alone I'd keep going right into the water, but Morgan and Virginia would think it was weird. The problem with them is they don't know how to be wild or joyful or stupid without planning it out first. 

         "How come it doesn't float to shore?" Morgan calls. 

         I shrug. "Maybe it's chained to the bottom." A breeze comes up, and the bird spins. "C'mon you guys. I want to get a picture of the two of you with the loon." 

         They walk to the water's edge and turn to face the camera with their arms hanging loose. 

         "Okay, Morgan—put your arm around Virginia. That's nice." 

         Virginia smiles, but my sister gives me a pissy look. "Morgan, could you pretend to have a good time for, like, two seconds?" 

         In the viewfinder, she looks like death. 


         James takes the picture. I take my arm off Virginia's shoulders so she won't beat me to it. "Do we really have to go see the stupid hockey stick?" 

         "Totally," says James. "Don't worry, it'll be cool. The thing's massive." 

         "Aren't we near Lake Itasca?" I say. 

         "What would we do there?" says James. 

         "It's where the Mississippi starts. We went there when we were kids—mom and dad took all three of us." 

         "I don't remember that," he says, "but I'll bet it looks like the river in the city, only without all the garbage in it." 

         When we're all back in the car, I say, "Let me get this straight. You're fascinated by a giant hockey stick, but you don't want to see where the Great River—the Mighty Mississippi— begins." 

         "Not really. But if you want to go there, I guess we could fit it in. That is, if we had an extra day or two. But we've got a lot to cover—we haven't even been to the most essential attraction yet." 

         "What might that be?" 

         "The World's Largest Ball of Twine." 

         I imagine knocking his good eye off center to match the lazy one. 


         In Eveleth, Morgan pulls into the parking lot and stops the car with a jerk. Our seatbelts tighten. 

         "Man," says James, clutching his stomach. "Do I have to take a dump or what." He slams the door and bolts away.  

         Morgan and I approach the giant hockey-stick and puck in silence. The tourists stare up at it as if they were waiting for it to speak. The whole scene is so absurd I find myself holding back laughter. I look at Morgan. My mouth twists.        

         "Yes?" she says, raising her eyebrows. "What are you smiling at?" Her tone is angry, impatient.  

         I shrug. The giggly feeling dissipates. I wish we could at least acknowledge our past. I want to tell her that I remember the day we went to Lake Itasca too: we dove beneath the cold, silvery water, clasped hands, and tried to talk. One of us would burble a word, and the other would have to figure out what it was. We guessed right almost every time. Now we can't even communicate on dry land. 

         James's footsteps pound behind us. He stops and breathes. "Man," he says. "It just fell right out." 


         In Bemidji, I immediately spot the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. 

         "This used to be dad's favorite stop," says James. "The concession stand here sells watermelon snow-cones." 

         It occurs to me that I don't have to do this. So I make a decision—I switch the blinker off and accelerate straight ahead. 

         "What are you doing?" says James. 

         I point to the Motel 6 sign on my left. "We're stopping here. I'm done driving, but you can do whatever you want while Virginia and I go to Lake Itasca." 

         "Maybe Virginia doesn't want to go to Lake Itasca," says James. 

         "Virginia doesn't talk. What do you want to do, Virginia? Blink once if you want to see Paul Bunyan, twice if you want to go to the headwaters." I throw the car in park. 

         Virginia looks at me, then James, then at the Motel 6 sign. She unbuckles her seatbelt. "I'm going to check in." 

         "Then I'm going without you," I say, trying to sound threatening or indifferent. But my voice just sounds hurt. Virginia doesn't even notice—she's already out of the car, suitcase in hand, walking toward reception. 


         The room is musty. There are wood-paneled walls, shag carpet, and air-brushed paintings of Navajo girls in canoes. I try to open my suitcase to retrieve my toothbrush, but one of the latches sticks. I turn it on its side to get a better angle. It springs open like a jack-in-the-box. T-shirts, socks, and underwear tumble out. Brushing my teeth suddenly seems exhausting. I lie down. I wish no one knew where I was. The doorknob turns. A slice of daylight lands on the carpet. 


         Virginia's lying on her back with her shirt hiked up to her ribcage. She throws a pillow over her head. 

         "I suppose you want to be alone, too," I say. 

         "Not really." Her words are muffled. 

         I take the remote from the bedside table, turn on the TV, and sit next to her. "Now she hates both of us. I crashed her car. What did you do?" 

         She sits up. Her hair is a mess. I hand her the remote, but she just stares at it like she doesn't know how it works. 

         "James," she says. "Can I ask you something weird?" 


         "If you were to describe me to someone, what would you say?" 

         I was hoping for something weirder. "Well, I'd say that you're smart and cute. And kind of quiet." 

         "Is that all?" 

         "I'd say you've got pretty much everything going for you." 

         "Do I have things going for me in my own way, or in more of a generic sense?" 

         "What do you mean?" 

         She pauses. "Do you think I should be more interesting?" 

         "No way." 

         She looks at me like I'm crazy or stupid or both. 

         "You're way more accomplished than me," I say. "I mean, you just picked up and started over on your own." 

         "Yeah. And now I'm back." 

         "Well, I think it's cool that you went away." 

         She shrugs. There are tears in her eyes, ready to spill. 

         "Now you're crying?" I sigh. "Let's turn the TV off." 

         "No, I want to watch this." She nods at the shampoo commercial on the screen. 

         "No, you don't. Come on—give me the remote." 


         "Give it." 

         "No way." She holds it behind her back. 

         I try to pry it from her fingers, but she's got a strong grip. I get her pinned down. Her fingers are white from clutching the remote. I start tickling. Her hair falls back from her face, and she rolls out from under me, right onto the floor. She lands on her back, and a puff of air leaves her body. 


         I can't breath. I turn my head, and I can see every strand of carpet, all the fibers that make up the strands. I can see grit and potato chip bits imbedded in the shag like dandruff. My eyes water. I gasp, but the air won't come in. My lungs feel like they're breaking. 

         James crouches beside me. "Are you alright?" He turns the TV off with a foomp.  

         I sit up. Slowly, my breath returns. James puts his hand on the back of my neck. 

         "Okay," he says. "You can have the remote." 

         I laugh. It comes out a wheeze. 

         "Just try to relax," he says. 

         The analog clock flips. James's hand moves a little. He touches the wisps of hair at the nape of my neck, and my scalp prickles.    


         Virginia gives me this look. I don't know if she's weirded out that I'm touching her or if she likes it or what. I lean in and put my mouth on hers, testing. She kisses me back. And then we're making out for real. Her hands are on my ass, and mine are under her shirt. I get her bra undone and lean in to kiss her again, but her hair is in the way. I pause to brush it aside. 

         "What are you thinking about?" I say. 



         "I never did this in high-school." 

         "Never did what?" 

         "I never made out with a boy in a musty-smelling room with the possibility of being caught." 

         "What do you think so far?" 

         "There's something to it."       

         I touch her face. "You think too much." 

         "I know. I can't help it." She looks at her hands. "Do you think I'm crazy?" 

         "No. I think you're interesting." 


         I wade into the lake. The water is cold around my ankles. On the shore, there's a plaque that marks the beginning of the river. The last time I was here, Virginia read the words aloud: Here, 1475 feet above the ocean, the Mighty Mississippi begins to flow on its winding way 2552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Virginia wanted to know who decided this spot was the source. She said that with all the rivers and streams emptying into the Mississippi, it seemed arbitrary. She was only eight, but she actually used the word "arbitrary". I called her a nerd to her face, but secretly I was impressed. 

         The sky is blank and colorless. On the other side of the lake, a loon calls long and slow, like it's not expecting a reply. 


         I look in to James's lopsided eyes. "We should get dressed." 

         "No way." He kisses my forehead. 

         I sit up, but he pulls me back. "AM dial," he says, twisting my left nipple. "FM dial." He twists the right one. 


         He makes static sounds like he's trying to find a station, then starts singing: "How does it feel...Oh, how does it feeeel To be on your own..." 

         "Will you quit it? What if Morgan walked in?" 

         "What if she did?" he says. "So, when are you moving home?" 

         "I don't know if I will." 

         "Okay, we'll live here in Bemidji. You can support me, and I'll stay home and take care of the babies and chickens." 


         "Yeah. Eleven of them." 



         There's no way around it, he's going to find out eventually. "Morgan and I have a history." 


         I sit up. "How long is this history?" 

         "The whole time we were growing up, I guess." 

         I climb off her and tug the sheet up. It feels weird, like I'm tucking her in. 

         "Thanks for telling me." 

         "I'm sorry. We never told anyone." 

         "Well, you should've told me a few hours ago." I put my jeans on with my back to her. "Morgan should've said something, too. I shouldn't even be here." I look out the window. The Motel 6 sign casts a sick yellow over the parking lot. When I turn back to Virginia, she's sitting against the wall, her knees drawn up. "Why exactly did you come on this trip?" 

         "I didn't mean for anything to happen." 

         "Are you talking about me or my sister?" 

         There's a knock on the door. Virginia gets up and walks into the bathroom. I start hunting around for the rest of my clothes. 


         James opens the door. He's wearing his jeans but no shirt, and one sock. 

         "I'm getting dressed," he says. "Then I'm going to the liquor store." 

         "Okay," I say. "Where's Virginia?" 

         "I think she's in the shower." 

         "You think she's in the shower?" 

         "Yeah. I'm going to the liquor store now." He puts his shirt and shoes on. One foot is still missing a sock. "Do you want me to get you something?" 

         "They're not going to sell to you," I remind him. 

         "How was the lake?" 

         "It was good. You should have come with." 

         "You didn't want me to," he says. 

         "Oh, yeah." I laugh. 

         He rolls his good eye. "Whatever. I'm leaving now." 

         He slams the door behind him. I sit on the edge of the bed and wait for the sound of the shower to stop. Then I knock on the bathroom door. 

         "I'll be out in a minute," Virginia says. 

         "We need to talk." I take a deep breath. "Avoiding me was really low. I mean, I'm okay now, but I felt pretty awful for a long time, and I think you owe me an explanation and an apology." 

         "I'm sorry," she says. 

         "You're going to have to say more than that before you take off again." 

         "Who says I'm taking off?" The door opens. There she is, damp and pink, wearing only a towel. "Where did James go?" 

         "He'll be back." 

         Virginia's eyes dart around. "I need to get out of here. I need some air." 

         We walk to the center of town, where the statues of Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan stand. They're lit up so travelers can see them from the road. Up close, they're creepy—Paul's eyes are beady. Babe's are pale and stunned. I light a cigarette. We lower ourselves to the concrete and lean against Paul's legs. 

         "The thing with you, Virginia, is that no matter what you do, you're always going to think you're missing out on something." 

         "I know that." 

         "I don't understand. Why can't you just decide you're going to be okay? " 

         "I guess I want more than that." 

         "Like what?" 

         "I want to be exceptional." 

         "That doesn't make any sense. All I know is you avoided me for years, then suddenly you track me down. So I hope you've got a reason. Because I wish I was over you, but I'm not." 


         If only I could make my feelings come out like that. Simple and pure. I look into her big, glossy eyes. I can't tell her I only came home because I didn't know what else to do. 

         Morgan stubs her cigarette out on Paul's boot and moves closer. Then she puts her arms around me. She smells like fish, earth, and something metallic—it's a familiar combination. It's the Mississippi. 


         I'm walking along the highway, carrying a bottle of Jack Daniel's. Semi trucks barrel past and drone away. I don't want to think about what happened with Virginia. I just want to get drunk. I head for the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. 

         The second I spot them, cozy at Paul's feet, I want to turn around. But it's too late. 

         "James!" Morgan says, waving her arms above her head. "Over here!" 

         My legs plod forward. Then I'm standing above them. "Very cute," I say. 

         "Shut up," says Morgan, but she's smiling. 

         Virginia sits up and scoots away from my sister. 

         "No, it's okay," I say. "You don't have to hide it anymore." 

         "What do you mean?" says Morgan. 

         "Oh, come on. How dumb do you think I am?" 

         Morgan looks at Virginia. "I can't believe the little shit knew." She gestures for the bottle, and I hand it over. "You drank the rest of this?" 

         "Yeah." I belch. "See, I told you they'd sell to me." 

         "Are you okay?" says Morgan. 

         "I don't know. Are you okay?" 

         "I'm fine," she says. 

         "Oh, come on. You're better than that. What about you, Virginia? Are you okay?" 

         "I'm fine too." 

         "Good. We're all fine." I smile. "I love you guys. I'm not just saying that because I'm drunk—I really mean it." 

         Morgan laughs. "We love you too, you freak." 

         "Now Virginia has to say it." 

         "Oh, for Chrissakes," says Morgan. 

         Virginia looks up at Babe the Blue Ox. "I love you too, James." 

         "That's just fucking fantastic." I lie down. "I'm going to sleep now. You guys can make out if you want. I'm so drunk I won't even notice." I close my eyes. 

         "He's out cold," says Morgan. She pushes my shoulder. "Maybe we should get him back to the motel." 

         They take me by the elbows and try to pull me up. 

         "What!" I say, and flail around a little. 

         "Time for bed," says Morgan. 

         "Nah." I make my legs go limp. 

         "It'd be a lot easier if you helped us," says Morgan. 

         "I don't want to go to bed." 

         "Then what do you want to do?" says Morgan. 

         "Go see the twine ball." 

         "We'll go tomorrow," says Virginia. 

         "Either we go now, or I'm not going to help myself walk." 

         "Okay," says Morgan. "Let's go to the twine ball." 


         I've never been so wide awake. Virginia's sitting up front with me. We have Styrofoam cups of coffee, and there's country music on the radio. The smells of creosote and manure blow through the open windows. Fireflies squiggle up into the night. Soon there's just the simplicity of field, sky, and endless telephone wire. It's good to be far from home. 


         They get lost right away. I could navigate if I wanted, but instead I listen to the crinkle of the map and their hushed voices, trying to figure it out.

         "We should have turned two miles ago...No, maybe this is the right road...I swear, we already passed this farm..."

         "James?" says Virginia. "Are you awake?" She reaches for my hand and holds it. "We're low on gas. And I'm not sure where we are."

         I bury my head in the pile of stolen Motel 6 pillows and pretend to sleep.


         The road switches from blacktop to dirt. Outside my window, the stars wobble. After a while, the car peters out beside a cornfield. Morgan and I get out. Gravel crunches under our feet. The wind blows, and the cornfield roars like an ocean. Morgan puts her hands on my hips and kisses me. I kiss her back, because right now, all I want is someone to hold on to while the stars fade.