• Vol. 03
  • Chapter 04
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Sweet Home Chicago

Jayden’s slumped on the bench staring at his feet when Mrs Jacobsen sits down beside him.

‘So, what do you think?’ she asks him.

She means about the painting. Jayden’s slumped in front of ‘American Gothic’ but he can’t make eye contact with it and I can’t say I blame him.

You know the painting, right? The guy with the pitchfork? There’s some serious tight-lipped weirdness going on in that painting, especially when you see it up close. It’s why Jayden can’t look at it. Neither can I.

Anyway, he says nothing to Mrs Jacobsen, just shrugs and makes a little grunting sound that’s barely audible.

The sort of answer the guy in the painting might give if you were to ask him how things were going.

‘Good harvest this year, McKeeby?’


Mrs Jacobsen pats Jayden on the shoulder.

‘Well, just write down whatever comes into your head. Go with your gut and see what you come up with.’

Jayden nods and looks up at the painting, but I can tell he’s looking past it at the wall.

When Mrs Jacobsen leaves I go over and sit beside him.


Sweet Home Chicago

‘All the really good ideas I ever had, came to me while I was milking a cow,’ I tell him.

‘What?!’ he says and he looks at me and grins like I’m crazier than a racoon.

‘That’s what the guy who painted it said when they asked him about it.’

‘No shit.’


‘I’ll have to remember that next time I’m walking down Lake Shore Drive.’

I know what he means. Two hours from now we’ll walk out of here blinking into the daylight and the skyscrapers, changed somehow by those stoical, grim-faced stares. Or at least that’s the idea.

Twentieth Century American Iconography is how Mrs Jacobsen lists her course. We thought she meant Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe.

No-one imagined Iowan farmers. Though maybe that’s the point.

‘Think about America. Even the bits you can never know.’ I can almost hear her saying that, eyes as steely and honest as any Iowan.

‘You know what I think?’ Jayden suddenly says.

‘No. What?’

‘I reckon that guy there, him,’ and he points at the painting but still refuses to look at it, ‘I reckon he never milked a cow in his whole life.’

‘It’s true,’ I tell him. ‘He was a dentist.’


Sweet Home Chicago

And we both look at the painting then. We take a long hard look, straight in the eye; then we laugh and laugh.

‘I knew it!’ Jayden cries, like we’ve triumphed over something.

Maybe we have. But later, standing on Michigan Avenue, I find I cannot move. I can’t get beyond this question.

‘Just what is it you think about,’ I wonder, ‘when you’re milking a cow?’