In the half-light of dawn I opened my eyes and listened for movement but the house was still. Soft breathing coming from the couch at my feet and the contours of an unfamiliar place at first unsettling and then a mystery to unravel. I was tucked into a small space between the couch and a staircase leading to the basement, a piano at my back and before me a portion of blank wall and the outline of a doorjamb. On the floor near at hand were my boots, socks, watch, flashlight, a small notebook and pen and a yellow iPod case, headphone wires spilling out in an untidy tangle.
Snaking one arm out of the sleeping bag, I checked the time on my watch and set it back beside my boots and thought of where we had been and where we were going and of how only four hours separated me from Lori. Four hours. The thought sent a current through me and I sat up and reached for the pen and notebook. I’m going home, I wrote, and thinking of nothing else to say shut the notebook and placed it on the floor and wrote no more.
When I opened my eyes again an hour had passed and people were moving around. I slipped into a shirt and laced my boots and crammed the sleeping bag into the stuff sack. Everything else I tucked into a tote bag and set beside the front door. I was ready to go.
But first came an enormous breakfast and coffee and a sort of lull before the road. Larry and Terry prepared much more food than we could eat but we kept at it until most of it was gone and our belts tight. As we helped clean the table Jim made a call on his cell phone and listened and spoke a few words and snapping the phone closed stalked into the living room where he stared soundlessly out the window. We looked at one another in askance while a terrible silence fell. Chod finally broke it with a choked whisper: It’s Pattie.
He explained, as I had forgotten, that Jim’s wife was going to have a biopsy taken. A cancer survivor himself, this must have weighed heavily on Jim during the trip, and yet he had made little reference to it. For all his volubility, the Shaman could be remarkably secretive at times, almost stoic, preferring to melt into the background, to watch silently, predatorial, the unfolding of human foibles and tragedies. (When he finally weighed in it was usually with wit and wisdom far exceeding what you’d expect from him, his gruff demeanor camouflaging a sharp mind seasoned with a biting sense of humor. But he was no pedant; when he cut loose with profanities, paint would blister and milk sour. Sometimes I wanted to grow up to be just like him. Now, thinking of my own wife so close, it was the last thing I’d want.)
If I was clueless how to respond, the others weren’t. Our hosts, old friends of his, gently brought him back to the fold, and he told us that Pattie had cancer. His eyes smoldering, withdrawn for a moment to some inner hell, fists clenching, he spat out that cancer could be fought, that it was a mind game which must be won. We’ll beat this, he swore. None of us doubted whom he was talking to.
Outside the sun slanted brightly through a cobalt sky. The morning was cool with a hint of heat rising from the gravel road. A pheasant called. Kittens on the porch swatted halfheartedly at each other until boredom dragged their eyelids closed, victims of late-spring lassitude. The universe carried on unabated. Somewhere in the world the moon lifted from the horizon and stars wheeled across dark heavens. Tides rose and fell. On the outskirts of Norton, Kansas, six people walked to a vehicle and hugged and shook hands and said their goodbyes. Four drove away, homeward bound.
It was the same stretch of road we’d taken more than a week before and yet it had changed. Trees were the most evident testament to a fury that was as erratic as it was unsparing. In places shredded beyond measure, limbs hacked and splintered, bark stripped, they had borne the brunt and drew our eyes to their suffering. At least two houses were gone, their contents scattered across gouged fields, hugging anything taller than a blade of grass. Center-pivot irrigators lay toppled or twisted like pretzels. What wasn’t harmed seemed scarred by its very normality.
In the back seat, staring out the window, I wondered what was left of my own neighborhood. If, indeed, it was touched at all. News had been scarce, damages still being assessed, according to reports. The destruction we witnessed fed a fear that had been growing for some time, that the West was where we belonged and not this tornadic bulls-eye. I remembered staring at Lander Peak and lamenting all that we’d lost, the sorrow almost crippling. It seemed a million years ago. And yet even as we traveled eastward, fields greening by the mile, draws and gullies filling with woods and the land undulating like rising ocean swells, I felt a tug, faint at first but growing ever more insistent, as if I’d passed into the gravitational pull of a celestial object. It wasn’t simply that these were fields I knew, recognition and no more, but something resonating in the very core of my being. I plucked my notebook from the tote and opened it to explore the feelings but no words came, only a sensory vibration. It was all emotion. After a while I put it back and resorted to staring out the windshield, mentally charting our course and seeing as I would the tall elevators counting down the towns until there was one only remaining and it growing closer until we turned onto a dusty road and bouncing down it came finally to the last house on the right. I could see it as clearly as if we were already there, a woman coming down the steps and the question I asked in Wyoming turning back on itself in reproach, asking how could I have left this, how could I have left her, and finding in her embrace all the answers I would ever need.