One time, about twenty-five years ago, I was heading from one place to the next, driving from Seattle across the Great Plains to Omaha to work with a cousin who had recently started a painting business there. It was late fall. All the corn had been turned under; the fields were either barren or had been rotated with dry grass that was brown and patchy. Endless stretches of brown or brown-yellow, an occasional wet ditch, and dipping telephone lines along the roadside. The sky was a sheet of gray, and it felt like it might snow.
I stopped the second night near dusk where two roads intersected at a low, flat, pink motel made of cinder blocks. Six rooms in a row with a white farmhouse at one end, some outbuildings next to it, a gravel parking lot, and an empty swimming pool with juniper bushes between the house and the rooms. There was a big tree on one side of the house whose empty branches hung over a corner of the pool.
The foyer of the farmhouse served as the motel office. I rang the bell on the little desk next to the staircase. A middle-aged man came out of the kitchen wiping his hands on a dishtowel. Through the doorway, I could see the back of a woman standing at the kitchen sink, water running. They both had short, salt-and-pepper hair.
He didn’t ask if I wanted a room, but took out a small card and a pen from the desk and set them down in front of me. I filled out the card and put the amount of money noted on top of it while he sorted through a cigar box of keys. He handed me one.
I said, “I can’t remember my license plate number. Want me to go and look?”
“Nope,” he said. “I gave you the end room, the one farthest away from the highway. Have you eaten?”
I shook my head.
“Well, if you’re looking for something to do, you can go into Carson. There’s a diner there might still be open and a pizza place. Else we can fix you up a sandwich or something.”
“Sandwich suits me fine,” I said.
“Won’t be fancy.” He looked out the window past me at the gray sky that had grown pink on the horizon. “I like to sit outside a while this time of night, watch the light change. If it’s not too cold for you, go get settled and come out by the pool. I’ll bring your food out there.”
I said thanks and drove over to the room. It was clean and spare. I washed up, put on a coat, and went back outside. He was sitting in one of the two rusty, tulip-backed chairs next to the pool holding a plate and a brown mug from which steam curled. He watched me come across the cinder parking lot and sit down next to him. Then he handed me the food and set the mug next to me on the concrete.
“My wife made that chicken salad and the pie,” he said. “It’s pretty good.”
“Thanks,” I said. I took a bite of the sandwich and looked at it. “That’s great.”
He nodded and looked out across the highway where the horizon had a purple line drawn between the gray and pink. A barn stood silhouetted in the front of the field across from us, and a flock of widely dispersed blackbirds flew through the hue over the stand of trees at the back of it.
“Is there a river back there?” I gestured with the sandwich where he was gazing.
“Creek,” he said, pronouncing it, “crick”. “Brook. Stream. Whatever you want to call it. Isn’t big enough to be called a river. Sometimes brings enough water to irrigate, that’s about all.”
I looked at the side of him and took a sip of tea. His face needed shaving. The outsides of his eyelids drooped, and his lips were pressed together in a short, thin mark. There were large calluses on both his palms where they met his fingers. He held his hands in his lap, sat back and rubbed his thumbs together slowly. I thought that he was perhaps ten years older than me, somewhere in his mid-fifties.
I asked, “You farm any of this?”
“Used to,” he said. He swept his hand in an arc. “Just about all of it at one time. Sold it off little by little. We had no kids to help, to pass it on to. Built this fly-by operation a few years back and sold everything but a couple acres next to the house where we keep a garden and a horse. That’s it.”
“Place doing all right?”
“You’re the only paying customer right now,” he chuckled. “Summer, we get a little better business. It’s at this crossroads, you see. Truth is, most folks use the interstate nowadays. Thought about putting in a filling pump, maybe a lunch counter-type deal to help drum up business, but I don’t know. Truth is, it hasn’t worked out to be quite as lucrative as we’d hoped. Time goes on and it doesn’t make as much sense as it used to.” He shrugged. “We get by.”
I nodded, but he wasn’t looking at me. I stared out where he was: fencing and barren land in every direction. An eighteen-wheeler rumbled by from the north. It was the first vehicle that had passed since I’d sat down. Then a tiny, thin cloud of dust rose from the back of the field behind the barn, and in front of it an old truck snaked slowly toward us.
He said quietly, “Kate.”
I asked, “That truck?”
We watched the ribbon of smoke drift after the truck for a moment. Then he pointed and said, “That barn burned down last spring. Struck by lightning. Course, we all got together, raised them a new one. Then worse yet, her husband dies at the equinox. Some kind of aneurysm.” He shook his head. “She’s had an awful time of it. Trying to keep up the farm and the kids on her own.”
The truck kept along. I ate the warm pie and we watched. The sky was muffled now, gray-purple toward the truck and the rest of it going dark. A few stars had crept out. The truck came up the last rise and alongside the barn. A woman with brown hair, jeans, and a jean jacket climbed out followed by a little tow-headed boy and girl in too-big sweatshirts. She waved once to the man next to me, then dragged open the big barn doors, and the children followed her inside. A cream-colored light filled the barn’s windows, as well as the patch of dirt in front of the open doors.
“Feeding time,” the man said softly.
We watched the coal-like figures of cows lumbering slowly in from the field in the gathering darkness. Now our breath hung in short cloud blasts. I sipped tea and held the mug in both hands to warm them.
After a few moments, Kate came back out of the barn and walked up to the fence across the shallow gully next to the roadside. She put her arms on top of one of the posts.
“Say, Rudy,” she called. “I could use a hand with something, if you got a minute.”
He stood up.
I said, “Can I help?”
“Come along, if you want. Maybe she needs something lifted.”
We walked across the highway, between the barbed wire strands, and stood in front of her in the soft, crumbling earth. Kate’s skin was either wind or sun-darkened, but it didn’t hurt the way she looked. She nodded to me and I nodded back.
She said, “Yearling’s got her head stuck.”
“Let’s go see,” Rudy said.
The big clumps of dirt broke softly and easily under our feet. The collective low moans of the approaching cows mingled with the quiet voices inside the barn. When we stepped into the light, I could see her children up in the hayloft holding toy cars.
There were perhaps twenty open slats low on the far side of the barn. The trough on the inside of the slats was full of the new hay she’d spread. The muzzles of most of the cows chewed hay from outside in the barnyard on the other side of the slats. But in the slat closest to the barn door, a yearling’s small head had come all the way through the boards and was tossing awkwardly in the hay. The sound from it reminded me of a bleat from a sheep being shorn. We walked up to it.
“There she is,” Kate said. “That gap’s been fine for all the rest. No problems.”
Rudy nodded and smiled. “Well, she isn’t happy with things right now, is she? Let’s get her out.” He brushed a strand of hay from the yearling’s eye, which looked up at him big and terrified. “Go out in the yard and hold her rear end. When I say so, sit her down.”
Although he hadn’t asked me specifically, I followed Kate through the gate and into the black mud of the barnyard. We stood behind the yearling. The cold night sky had filled with stars. Steam rose off the backs of the cows. Tails swished around us, and the smell of dung was sweet in the back of my nose. We glanced at each other.
Rudy asked, “Ready?”
“Yes,” Kate answered, and set her hands on the yearling’s hind flank. I did the same on my side.
Through the slats, we watched Rudy slowly lower one hand under the yearling’s muzzle and close the other over it. He held his hands firmly together and told her, “Shh.” Then he gently turned the yearling’s face so that she looked straight ahead, and lifted it. Her hooves pawed the muck. One of the other cows began to urinate, a steady, steam-filled, forceful stream.
“All right,” Rudy said slowly. “Easy now. Stand away from her legs. Set her rump down towards the end of the yard. Easy.”
We did, and he helped the yearling’s head back through the slats. Her ears folded over on themselves, then she was out, running on her spindly legs clumsily to the end of the yard. Kate looked at me and smiled.
“Thanks,” she said.
I nodded. She wiped her palms on the front of her jeans, and then I followed her around to the open doorway of the barn. Rudy was tossing new hay into the depression where the yearling’s head had been. Kate walked up to him and patted his shoulder twice.
“Appreciate that,” she told him.
He said, “Gwen’s made pie. You and the kids want some, come over.”
“Wish we could,” she said. “Getting late though. School night.”
A toy car fell out of the loft into the sawdust near my feet. I handed it back up to the boy, who had his mother’s big, gentle eyes. I looked at her and those eyes smiled again.
“All right, then,” I heard Rudy say.
I held her gaze as long as I dared, then followed him back through the field, under the fencing, and across the highway to the motel.
He picked up the plate and mug, and we stood next to the tulip-backed chairs. It was quiet. The soft white light from the kitchen came across the lower part of the big tree and threw shadows on that corner of the empty pool. A broken branch sat still among the wet leaves on the blue cement bottom. The light also crossed the side of Rudy’s face, darkening it. He extended his hand and I shook it. He went back inside, and I walked around the pool to my room listening to their storm door swing slowly shut behind him.
Later in the night, I heard a train go by quite a ways off through the fields to the north. Perhaps, I can remember thinking, I could get to know her and maybe other things would develop from there. But I didn’t see how. I’d been alone a long time.
Every now and then, a truck or a car went by in one of the four directions. Otherwise, it was still, except for a few birds that started tittering towards daybreak.
I stopped at the diner in Carson that next morning for breakfast. It was just a little narrow place on a corner with a short counter and a couple of booths. Two men in work caps and plaid, long-sleeved shirts sat across from one another at the back booth, and a waitress was pouring coffee at the end of the counter for an old man with a toothpick between his lips, They were the only people that I could see in the place. They all stopped and watched me as I settled onto a stool near the cash register.
The waitress came over, set a cup in front of me, and filled it with coffee. She was a solid woman with a friendly face and glasses. I ordered eggs and toast, and she called that through a little window behind her. It was warm. I unbuckled my coat. The two men went back to talking quietly. The old man and I nodded at each other and then turned back to our coffee. Smells from the spitting grill came from the kitchen.
The waitress set a napkin and silverware in front of me. I asked her, “How many people live here?”
She paused and then said, “I don’t rightly know. Frank, how many people live in Carson?”
The old man regarded her, chewing on his toothpick. “In the county or within the city limits?”
I shrugged. He switched the toothpick to the other side of his mouth and considered some more. Finally, he said, “About 1,500 here in town…suppose about 2,000 across the county. It’s a big county, bigger than you realize.”
“Seems like a nice place,” I told them.
“Just right,” she said.
The old man nodded and turned back to his coffee. I did the same. A few minutes later, the waitress put my breakfast in front of me. I ate slowly. I had no particular timetable to meet except to be at my cousin’s house in Omaha before he went to bed that night. It was a long drive, most of it, I knew, mile after mile through empty fields.
After a while, the two men at the booth stood up, pulled coats on, and shuffled out the door. Bells on it tinkled when they opened and closed it. As I was pushing my empty plate away, the bells tinkled again, and Kate came in with her two kids. I swallowed.
“Hey,” the waitress said to them and smiled.
“Morning, Mabel,” Kate told her. She glanced at me and smiled. I did the same, then fiddled with the handle on my coffee cup. She said, “Hey, Frank.”
The old man nodded and said, “Kate.”
Mabel took the lid off a little pedestal on the back counter, put two sugar donuts in a small white bag, and brought it to them at the cash register. She gave the bag to the boy. He and his sister each hung to opposite corners of their mother’s jean jacket. “There you go, darlings,” Mabel told them and grinned. Kate handed her some money.
“Fixing to snow?” Mabel asked.
“Feels like it,” Kate said.
They nodded at each other slowly until Mabel asked, “Kids okay?”
“Oh, little one has the sniffles. They’re fine.”
Kate ruffled her daughter’s hair. Mabel nodded some more. The radio came on low in the kitchen: a country western song. Someone switched the stations until settling on a news program giving a report on grain prices.
“Well,” Kate said. “School’s going to start.”
Mabel wiped her hands on her apron and said, “You all have a good day now.” I watched her push through the swinging door into the kitchen.
When I turned, Kate was smiling quietly at me again. She stood for a moment like that. She said, “Thanks again for your help last night.”
We looked at each other some more until she raised her eyebrows, sighed, and said, “Well.”
Then she turned and went back out through the tinkling diner door. I watched her go down the sidewalk with a hand on the shoulder of each of her kids. The boy swung the donut bag as he went. I swallowed again, shook my head. I took another sip of coffee and felt my heart thudding away. I kicked the base of the counter, and Frank glanced over at me. I put some money on the counter and left quickly myself.
But the street was empty, no sign of their truck. I walked up to the corner, and the side street was vacant, too, in both directions. A calico cat sauntered out behind the gas station across the street, crossed the blacktop, and stopped in front of me, its tail standing straight up. The tail swayed back and forth. After a moment, it purred once, then went off up the sidewalk and into the alley behind the diner. I don’t know if it had stopped to be petted or not. Either way, I’d chosen not to, and so off it had gone, on its way. Not much of a chance that I’d ever see it again.
I worked for that cousin for about a year. Winter was pretty long and hard in Omaha, not much to do. I started collecting pennies, and that passed some of the hours outside of work. There was a pretty good periodical section in the library there where I spent time. I took long walks along the river, had lots of opportunity to think about things.
After my cousin’s business went under, I stayed a while longer and took a job sheet rocking for an outfit that was building a new strip mall. But that ended, too, so I eventually decided to head back to Seattle to see if I could find a ship to put out on again. I was in no rush, so drove by way of Carson.
I stopped at the crossroads motel. It stood closed-up, empty, patches of weeds littering the cinder lot, plywood up in some of the farmhouse windows. The tulip-backed chairs were gone, so I sat on the front step of the farmhouse. It was a warm late-spring afternoon, several hours before dusk. The wood on the barn across the road had weathered and darkened. The field behind it was planted now in ankle-high new corn. I watched a tractor motor back and forth toward the road among the rows that were planted horizontal to it. From that distance, I couldn’t tell who was driving. Its approach was gradual. In order to do something, I tossed gravel at the mailbox that stood on a crooked post where the parking lot met the road. I made myself breathe slowly.
Gradually, I could make out the driver with his tangle of red hair: a gangly high school-aged boy. At one point, as he was working the nearest row of corn, he raised his hand in greeting from the cab of the tractor. I did the same. I waited until he’d pulled it up in front of the barn before I walked across the road and through the barbed wire. He’d opened the barn doors. There were no cows in the yard, and the feed trough was empty of hay. I saw some thrashing blades and other equipment in the sawdust under the loft.
The tractor stood idling. The boy came back around the side of it and stopped in front of me, “Hi,” he said. “Say, that motel is closed.”
I nodded and asked, “Same lady own this place? Kate?”
He shook his head. “Nah, she sold to my uncle, moved away.”
I didn’t say anything, and neither did he. He squinted at me. I noticed that one of his two front teeth overlapped the other, but I wasn’t thinking about that.
I asked, “Any idea where she went?”
“Nah. I don’t think she said exactly. Somewhere with warmer winters, I know that.”
I nodded some more. I looked out over the field where he’d been working, and he followed my gaze. There were several groups of blackbirds over the low growth. He waved his hand passively toward them and said, “Shoo.”
A dog barked somewhere. I could smell the diesel from the idling tractor. The boy put one foot up on the running board, and said, “Well.”
“Thanks, kindly,” I said. I turned and headed back towards the fence. I listened to the tractor chug into the barn, then the engine switch off as I crossed the road. I got back in my car, but didn’t start it right away. I’d never been with anyone for more than a few weeks at a time and that had only been on a couple of occasions years before. I’m not sure what I would have said if she’d still been there. I guess I would have thought of something. After that last time, I hoped so, anyway. I’d thought about it enough, I knew that.
Perhaps ten minutes passed before the boy came back out of the barn and closed its doors. He started walking up the long drive that Kate’s truck had come down. I watched the back of him until he disappeared into the trees behind the field. Then I started the car and headed to wherever the next place was that I would hang my hat.
I spent the twenty-plus years that followed mostly shipping out here and there. Went to some interesting foreign ports, saw a good portion of the world, I guess you could say. I suppose I had my share of adventures. My back eventually got the best of me, and I settled in this mid-sized city near the Great Lakes where an old crewmate’s family owned a hardware store. I went to work for them a decade or so ago and have been there since. It’s not hard on my back, and it’s work I like well enough. With only Social Security, I have to augment a bit, so that fits the bill. Truth is, I need to work just to pass the time. I still have my coins. Plenty of places to walk. Friendly enough folks around. There’s a library; I’ve begun reading histories and biographies. Brought home a cookbook once and tried a few recipes, but it was hard to get excited much making meals for one. A while back, I started to pray, too, in my own awkward way. At first, at bedtime, but then after a few months, in the mornings, too, before I got out of bed.
Besides that crossroads, there are plenty of other places I could have called home. Usually, I realize now, something small just felt right about them. I remember a little town along the boundary waters where Canada meets the Great Lakes, south of Route 2, distinguished in my mind by still black ponds, red dirt roads, and people moving at a sensible pace. There was a small city in the mountains of Mexico; the buildings there were as white as those in Greek villages, but the night air retained a sweet fragrance from the surrounding pines, and people greeted you quietly when you passed by.
Another is a place I paused to get gas one summer afternoon somewhere in Oregon. A park sat across the street that had green grass and tall willow trees that threw long, liquid shadows. In the back of the park, I could see the shimmer of a municipal pool in the clean light and hear the splash of water and the shouts of children from it. A big woman sat in a folding chair at the front of the park near the entrance. She was crocheting and selling huckleberry jam. The jars sat on a card table that had an umbrella fixed on it against the sun.
There are lots of other places, too many to mention. I could have called any of them: home. Yet, I never did. Those prior opportunities are gone. This will now be my final resting place, circumstances pretty much dictate it, and that’s all right. It’s as good as any other. Nothing makes it stand apart, no clutch of the heart, but it’s fine. It’s home. Home, sweet, home.
I don’t know. You settle places, you fill your life with events and memories and things. Sometimes, though, I think it’s those you omit that mean the most. At least in certain instances. At least in those instances that may always remain irretrievable. I’m not sure about much, but about that, I’m fairly certain.