Visiting Sioux City once a year is a little bit like Christmas. The anticipation promises more than the reality. I know this, but every year, I think that things will be different, that all my relatives and old friends will drop their lives for the sole purpose of entertaining me.
“Look who’s blown into town,” I imagine everyone saying as Shel and I swing onto the Hamilton Blvd. exit in our red Jetta with the blue Pennsylvania plate. The girl who moved east and married a big time psychologist and professor. If they only knew...
As we head for Sal’s via Hamilton Boulevard and West 14th Street, I’m disappointed when I see Sioux City people doing what people anywhere would do: shopping at the Hy-Vee, hanging out at the old Lippman’s store, walking their dogs along West 7th, hitting afternoon Bingo at the V.F.W.
And I’m always surprised at how dirty and small the town seems: litter everywhere, empty lots overgrown with crabgrass, broken glass in the streets, old clapboard houses with peeling paint, the stench of the stockyards hanging in the air, the air heavy with wavering heat and humidity. I don’t remember these scenes and smells from my youth.
Somehow, the visions and smells of way-back-when include foot-deep snow, the fog of my breath as I walked to school, the odor of the Wonder Bread factory distracting me during first period Algebra–maybe just a dirty world covered by a blanket of snow, after all.
And when we arrive at Sal’s, tired and hungry, no one is home. Shel and I climb over the fence in the backyard and scrounge around on the back porch for the key that Sal has sworn is in the old dresser drawers. I take comfort in the fact that nothing here has changed: old rags, a torn bingo card, dog and kid toys, bones, auto parts, old pots and pans–-and even occasional piles of dried dog shit–-still litter the porch. When my cousins were young, Sal’s house always smelled like piss, shit, and sour milk, odors I have always associated with big, happy families.
I don’t know what I would do if Sal suddenly became a cleaning freak. Probably flip out and go back to Pennsylvania. Sal’s sloppiness drives Sheldon nuts, but I find it comforting in a world that already places too much importance on the expected and the ordinary. I like the fact that Sal doesn’t give a damn what others think about her housekeeping and vow that I’ll work on caring less, too.
By the time Shel and I find the key among the old, gray jockey underwear and tattered swimming trunks that Sal keeps for her grandkids, Ashley, my cousin, arrives home from work and, without breaking stride, sidesteps a pile of doggie-do.
“Oh, good. You found the key,” she says as if she sees us every day instead of once a year. “Forgot mine this morning.”