In the front hallway of the house I grew up in was a glass-doored cabinet where my father displayed remnants of the Indian wars: a blanket fringed with hair, a rope fashioned from the knotted scraps of a calico dress, a tobacco pouch made of skin, a red peg. On the wall of his study hung a photograph of the tracks freighters made in the eighteen hundreds as they crossed the plains through the Smoky Hill Valley. The tracks were curving, serpentine, hundreds of yards wide, a tangled web of intersecting paths like strands of braided hair. My father loved the prairie and its history. "Make no mistake about it," he said to me once as we stood on a broad city avenue that led eastwards away from Choke Creek. "This is it. You're standing right on it. Cannibal Road. The Starvation Trail."
I was fifteen years old then, best friends with a girl named Livia, and I remember standing on the sidewalk that day with my father while traffic swirled by and in the distance the hroad, dusty creek bottom shone beneath the harsh prairie sun. "Never forget," my father admonished me, "the things that brought you here." It was the one thing, he said, that he couldn't abide: people who claimed to have buried the past and put it behind them, as if it no longer had any pull.
That night I had dinner at Livia's house. While her mother finished up in the kitchen, Livia and I set the table. Carefully we put out four placemats: one for Livia, one for her father, one for her mother, and one for me. We brought out napkins, silverware, plates. When we were done, I paused with my hand resting on the cool teak back of my chair and admired the table: the creamy white plates with their ice-blue rims, the dark green linen placemats, the matching napkins, folded neatly into triangles.
At my house no one ever used the dining room. My father and I ate at the kitchen table, taking plates from the oven where Ruth, our housekeeper, had left them before going home for the day. Nights when my father worked late, I ate alone, standing at the kitchen counter. Now Livia's mother came out of the kitchen to place tall, cold glasses of milk beside each plate. She brought out a platter of baked chicken, a silver gravy boat and a porcelain bowl of cooked carrots. One day, I resolved as I sat down, I would serve carrots at a table of my own, in a bowl just like that, with a blue cornflower painted on the side.