Thursday, April 17, 2008

Under the lighthouse

It rained most of the morning as we worked our way west toward Denver and a wedding, and any idea I had of making good time was quickly quashed in the grind of following slow-moving trucks whose vapor trails left no view for passing. Dawn was long past but twilight remained until early afternoon. Western Kansas, dry as ever but greening as if in defiance of the drought, surrendered to eastern Colorado and the strangulate prairie towns of Idalia, Cope, Anton and Lindon. Last of the breed was Last Chance, windows boarded, roofs collapsing, bereft now of any chances and dying a visible and public death with few to shed a tear. And on into the vacuum of the interstate, rush hour and the madness of cities. 

On the way, Lori told a friend who was catching a ride with us of the time when our younger son, Benjamin, tried to kill me. I was logy from lack of sleep and wearily focusing on driving and the passing scenery, and surprised, too, when she inched further into the sad tale with details I had tried to forget. It was not a story she shares willingly and yet here she was enumerating the methodical dismemberment of our home and the sundering instant when I opened the garage door and felt the rifle butt slam into my face. 

Nor did her story end there. Like the endless miles over the shortgrass wastelands, it continued unabated  until I cleared my throat and said, “Enough.” 

By then the sun was breaking through and the rain had stopped and traffic consisted of us alone, and it seemed enough simply to sail that empty landscape like vehiculatory mariners, putting aside all thought to lapse into an insensible reverie from the sway and thrum of motion and the slow drift of cloudshadow across those treeless troughs and swells. Such lands possess a fragile charm easily fractured by a desire for haste or a predilection for mountains, forests or the trappings of a robust civilization, all of which were in store for us a hundred or so miles away. 

I usually begin thinking of mountains about the time I hit Byers and join the masses being sucked into the vortex of the metropolitan area. Nor was this trip any different. But even as the events Lori recounted had softened and taken a gentler edge in the succeeding fifteen years, so had those snowy ramparts lost their painfully sharp emphasis. That breathless sense of anticipation would remain, forever I hoped, but the impact of their first sighting was at last moderated to a manageable ache. Time, the great equalizer, had worked its magic, and for that I was grateful. I don’t want to lose my memories, I just want to be able to live with them.

Life is a process rather than a series of events. We evolve, or devolve, from a former state but rarely remain the same. Stasis is another form of stagnation though some prefer it to the uncertainties of change. For a long time after our son was taken from us I preferred a static existence, mistaking it for equilibrium. Actually I was creating a barricade against a world I found too cutting to endure, and as such balanced a tightrope that left no room for error. Each slip left me higher or lower depending on the moment; each left me feeling stretched thin like a tendon ready to snap. It’s easy to see how a center-of-the-road approach to life was safer, but then my relationship with Lori wasn’t engineered by balance but by risk, something we inherently understand when we’re younger. But then, we have less to lose, too. 

The city kept me off-guard in a way I never predicted: courteous drivers and an absence of traffic jams. Perhaps civilizations evolve, too. We stayed the first night with our older son, Joel, and then moved to a hotel on the extreme southern flank of the city, just below the Centennial Airport tower. It seemed altogether odd to be there when our families were nearby, but we had somehow slipped through the cracks to become mere accessories. One afternoon we managed a mental health break at Roxborough State Park where scrub jays flittered through thickets of Gambel’s oak, and ravens and golden eagles patterned the skies above towering red sandstone formations. 

It was over soon enough. We returned to our motel, changed into nicer clothes and drove to the golf course where the wedding was to be held. 

Hiding behind the camera was a safe bet and I wielded it like a shield. The bride walked the aisle, vows were spoken, we all retired to the open bar and availed ourselves of strong drink. There were several men I used to work with, old enemies more than friends, and a great many strangers, so I stuck with our family and studied our sons and their daughters and in that study found a strange contentment I had all but forgotten. For the first time in many years I could look at Benjamin and not feel repulsed. Among his many tattoos was a new one in memory of his grandfather and namesake. He showed it to me and I did not flinch.

Later we said our goodbyes, some we meant and some we didn’t, and slipped away into the starless night. Somewhere east of there, weary and meditative, we wended through empty boulevards probed above by the sweeping beacon of the control tower. The tower was a slim white finger thrust into the sky, easily the highest structure around, and appeared to my glazed eyes as if it were a great inland lighthouse warning us of dangerous shoals. But there were no shoals to fear, no shallows on which to run aground. There were only the memories sloughing off, and something like forgiveness and the willingness to once again become vulnerable. 

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