During the night temperatures plummeted and a rising wind moaned through the trees. This wind was different than last week’s balmy current delivering wave after wave of swallows and swifts, pelicans, gulls, vultures and the lesser orders of dragonflies and monarchs, all hitching a free ride for points south. This wind had teeth, and it wasn’t afraid of using them.
Except for the faint glow of the clock and an aura haloing the electric blanket control, there was no sound but the dull beating of my heart and the susurration beyond the scrim of lathe and plaster an arm’s reach from the bed. Five minutes to midnight. I thought of the trees moving against the gusts, deep rolling surges like heavy surf breaking on rocky shoals, their golden leaves ripping free to glimmer the air and collect in sad drifts in the lee of the house. And too soon, early October yet and summer unceremoniously snatched away.
Under the wind’s assault the house creaked like old leather harness. New sounds intruded, a metallic rattle, a truncated thump that might have been downstairs or somewhere in the outer darkness. My ears picked up on it and strained to hear over the sudden quickening of my pulse and the incessant ringing. After a while I heard nothing else and relaxed and slipped off to sleep, but uneasily, with dreams of dark streets and eyeless faces peering from open doorways.
Later still, I awoke again to find Lori beside me. I thought it odd how I hear strange noises in the night but often completely space out my wife’s footfalls on the squeaky stairs, and wondered too at the man I am becoming. For most of my adult life I would have heard every sound, no matter how slight, partly due to a mostly-nocturnal career spanning 25 years where hearing was as crucial as sight. Every sound had an origin; my job, among other things, was to determine its relative innocence or menace. Several nights ago with Lori gone I roused to another thump, and listened for a while until it came again, and from what seemed a different location. Nerves tingling, I rolled out of bed and stood at the head of the stairs, and waited for a long time before starting down. The pistol’s night sights led the way, three luminous green dots sweeping the untenanted rooms before me, until I came at last to the basement and saw in the silver glow of a harvest moon dust motes dancing in the air. The rooms cold and empty.
It’s hard to describe what goes through my head when I come to the end of a late-night house search. Relief of sorts, and maybe a sense of paranoia which, I know, can be beneficial; a little silly, embarrassed to find that after all these years I’m still chasing ghosts.
Why that should be is a mystery I find both perplexing and, in some inexplicable fashion, comforting. These endless rhythms provide not only foundation, but familiarity. We have been here before; these are fields we know. That we have also managed to survive is tacitly acknowledged.
But not without scars to show for it. Some are visible, such as my melted shoulder or the waxy slice on my thigh, and others hidden, a few of which are buried so deep not even Freud could unearth them. In so many ways, some understood and others forever beyond our understanding, we march to a beat instilled within our most subterranean recesses, a beat that began at the dawn of time. We are our own expanding universe; we carry our own genesis.
Try as we might, no amount of transformative pretense can alter that. The nightmarish streets I inhabit in my dreams are merely cycles of some mysterious unfolding that I like to think will someday be revealed. Ditto with the arcane repetitive symbols that come and go unbidden: the WWI-vintage riot gun, the dark alleys, the long corridors with their dozens of closed doors.
Cycles are the nature of nature. Creation took seven days, the Bible tells us. On the eighth, the cycle began all over again. And now the equinox is past; the October skies gray and low and emptying of their avian hosts, and the hills tarnishing to rust and ochre and maroon. It might seem too early for autumn but it is not. This is the eighth day.
Migration, cycles and feelings of loss were on my mind when I came across a Peanuts cartoon dated Nov. 10, 1973. Charles Schulz was a master at depicting the neuroses of adults, cleverly couched in children such as Charlie Brown, Linus, Sally, Peppermint Patty and, though she would never admit to being anything other than perfect, Lucy. Using the simplest of forms in four-panel strips, his works are as elementary as they are eloquent. This particular strip began with Snoopy watching a leaf drift from a tree. It falls at his feet, only to be whisked away by an unseen breeze. “It’s always the same,” Snoopy thinks with a wry expression. “Hello and goodbye.”
The message resonated days later when I stood outside with a raw wind raking my exposed face, head tilted back to watch the season’s last chimney swifts swirl past. And as I watched them depart and the skies slowly vacate, there appeared coming down from the north droves of snow geese winging past in long ragged vees, their dog-cries shattering the wintry silence. Hello, hello, I said, and, as they disappeared over the southern ridge, goodbye, goodbye. And for every goodbye, another hello. They were leaving and I was staying and nothing I could do would change that. With birds, nightmares or bumps in the night, it’s always the same. Hello and goodbye. Such are the rhythms of our days.
Your writing has such a rhythm. such a haunting presence. I wish you could put this into fiction. With all your experiences in a field most of us know nothing about, you could create a character - a tough sensitive guy (you) who would muse over life during his work for good - perhaps a reluctant kind of good Samaritan. I believe you would reach even more folks with your intriguing and beautiful writing. How often I write down beautiful passages from a piece of fiction - a passage that resonates over and over throughout the years. I love your writing but I long to have these stories within a larger a story, a perfect book to curl up with on a cold autumn night.
Deb -- If I ever sit down long enough, I have a novel in me about a haunted WWI vet-small town cop-murder mystery/thriller/whatever. I have the plot laid out, some of the characters, some of the history and background and, of course, the shotgun...
Oh, for a writing scholarship where I could lock myself in a room and hammer out the Great American Novel.
You comments keep me going on a gray, gray day. Many thanks.
Gray, gray day, indeed. I was expecting fall, but not winter. The abrupt cold stings. Nice work again, Tom. I vote with Deb concerning the novel-writing. November is the month to do it, you know: National Novel Writing Month. (Google it.) You might not finish your novel, but you'd get a heck of a good start on it.
Carol -- Every November I forget about this until half-way through the month. You just gave me a reminder. Hmmmm....
Hey, if I ever win a couple of million in the lottery, you've got that scholarship. You can pay me back with the proceeds from the movie taken from your extremely successful novel. All right now. Off to buy a couple of tickets. :)
Deb -- Ooohhh, I hope you win the jackpot!
It's funny you write about this today. Last night, with Dee Dee at work, I was in the bedroom getting some cleaning done when I heard my 2 poodles go nuts at the front door, which was open. The screen door was latched and it sounded like someone came in the door. I've never heard the dogs bark like they did. My first thought was that the kids had come over, but then realized that the dogs would have ceased their barking. I immediately grabbed the Remington 870 shotgun, loaded a round, and started for the door. No one there! I KNOW I heard someone trying to come in the door. I guess old age has it's benefits to keep the blood pressure up. Anyway, GREAT STORY!!
Wes -- You're tellin' me the shotgun was unloaded? That right? ;-)
Do your fiction if you like, but never stop doing this.
To say "You should turn this into a story" has at least a vague implication that "this" could be more, that it is somehow lacking, incomplete.
These essays are what they are: perfect, true to their nature, complete, resonant. The rhythms of your writing are as familiar as the fields. They might be foundational for something else, but they don't need to be.
As someone said to me months ago, it's ok to plant snapdragons next to petunias, but don't tell that petunia to be a snapdragon.
Let the petunia be what it is.
Linda -- I'm not sure about my stuff being perfect and complete but I certainly appreciate the compliment. Words of wisdom to carry me forward into my next column: I am the petunia.
Perfect isn't flawless.
I don't quite know what that means, but I know it's true.
A few flaws in the service of perfection isn't such a bad thing.
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