The trees were all bare and reaching upward in this tiny Missouri town, Sedalia. The sky was colored tin. My dorm roommate had brought me home for Christmas. The folks here slept with doors unlocked at night and rode tractors downtown, she said. Two days before Christmas it was unfathomably cold and there was a layer of snow so fine and clumpless that it looked like baby powder on the streets. Downtown was six storefronts and a shacklike post office leaning against the local bar. My friend pointed up to the town water tower next to a corrugated grain silo and said, "I lost it up there," meaning virginity. People in this part of the world have such archaic values. You could see a rusted ladder and narrow catwalk at the top of the tower.
I was supposed to meet her family, but only a strange, empty house greeted us when we walked in, with food and newspapers on the kitchen counter, as if the family had left earlier that day due to some calamity. My friend grew more and more tense, sitting on a ripped armchair, reading an old Christian magazine called Grit. There was little heat. At one point her surly brother came home in a pea coat, only to say nothing, then go out again with a pair of pliers. An hour or two passed. My friend disappeared. I walked outside at mid-afternoon, and the sky and air were now quiet and yellowish, the way it is before a snowstorm. A skinny crow paced the roof. From the backyard, I heard my friend shriek.
She ran around to the front of the house, crying. She said she'd been bitten by a dog that had run by. "We have to find it," she said, implying that she wanted to make sure the dog belonged to someone and didn't have rabies. So we went out into the desolate neighborhood, calling, "Here dog" to blank, empty streets, as if in a dream. There were no sounds of traffic, airplanes, or other voices. We walked through streets further and further remote, ruining the thin membrane of snow. At a street dead-ending in woods, we made our way toward a little creek and my friend drank the water there noisily, cupping her hand, the way children in fairy tales drink the potion that will cure them of evil curses. The water must have been freezing.
"Were you really bitten by a dog?" I asked.
"Can we just leave?" she said. "I always hate it here."
We drove to Kansas City. We ate Christmas dinner at a restaurant called Big Boy. She said her family did terrible things on holidays. But she didn't explain.