For me, all these years later, this is also an interesting segment. I'd thought Howard was going home or leaving home, but instead he gets in his car and leaves, goes out into the country. There's some prairie stuff here, and in one spot I use the word midwestern in a way I never would today. To me, today, midwestern means Indiana or Illinois or Wisconsin. Goshen is on the edge of the Great Plains, a whole different landscape than a something midwestern. I'd never use that word that way anymore. Strange.
Ten years after I wrote this story, I started shooting photographs, digital photographs, of the world I live in here in Siouxland, in part because I knew it would be a test. Can you really photograph a place where there isn't much to see? Can there be beauty there? If you've looked at the photographs I've used with the segments of this story, you've seen at least something of an answer because they've all been mine, shots I've taken of the world I live in.
Maybe the story is prophetic. Today I do what Howard does here. Today I go out to the country often, in fact, and try to find beauty. Occasionally, I think, I do.
When I come home from late meetings, there's a light on in the kitchen. It's always been that way, even if Julia is already up to bed. But there wasn't that night. The house was perfectly dark, darker in fact on the inside than it was from the street. The sky, like the air, was crisp and clear and cold, lit almost hauntingly by the moon, a bright silver dish against the black field of stars, reflecting on the snow over the streets and yards.
Our house has no locks, but I knew what she meant by the darkness. I had said I could stay in town somewhere, and it was her signal that she understood what I had offered as no hollow threat. There was an entire dialogue in there being no lights on, a full conversation that had taken place between us without a word ever having been said. Had I not brought up the possibility of my sleeping elsewhere, she would have kept the light on; but because I had offered it, she was only forcing me to live by my promise. She assumed I'd come home all right, but she was telling me by a darkened house that she had heard my threat. It had been her move, and she turned out all the lights. It's amazing how one knows every word of that argument, even though it's never taken place.
Had I not said what I did, I would have been angry to find everything dark; as it was, I had no right to snarl. So I stood there on Goshen's empty main street, jerking my collar up around my neck, while behind me, four houses west, the downstairs lights at the Heerema's had finally gone out. On the lot next door, the glare of the streetlight on the intersection lit up the twin entrances of the old white frame church.
I had only two options, of course; one was to go in the house, and the other was to stay out. Going in would be its own kind of statement. I was reneging on my offer to go elsewhere, and I knew I would be admitting to her that what I had said was nothing more than an empty threat. Even if I chose to sleep downstairs on the sofa, my going in would be my own loss. That's the way I saw it--win or lose. It was a matter of pride. I know that now. But it was past eleven already, and there would be nowhere to go anymore; not even the fast food places in Winoka stay open till twelve on weeknights.
I went to the garage anyway, because I knew that Julia wouldn't be sleeping and that she'd hear the whirr of the starter if I decided to leave. The sound of the engine was my reply to what she'd said by leaving the house darkened. I had told her I could sleep elsewhere; she had allowed me the validity of my threat. With the sound of the car leaving the yard, I knew I would push her one step farther, make her feel the deeper penetration of her own real fear, or anger.
By now she knew what had happened at church. Her brothers would have called her and told her or she would have called them. I wondered what they would be planning now. It would be very difficult for them to leave the only church they had ever known. They had to be thinking that it was more their church than it was Heerema's anyway, and in a way, they were right. Without him, there would have been Branderhorsts in that church for a millennium. In a matter of years—four or five, maybe even less, Heerema would have gone on to some city church out east, and the only remnant of his tenure would be a family picture hung in the basement in the gallery of the preachers who had served the place.
The decision we had made could serve only to increase their anger. Undoubtedly, that's what Julia felt when they called to tell her, and the anger made it even easier to turn out the light above the kitchen sink.
I'm not trying to excuse myself now, because I know what I did wasn't right. All I'm trying to do is to get you to understand what I felt. I'm not even looking for understanding; what I'm looking for is something else altogether.
I took the car out of the garage, backed out of the driveway and left town, going east toward Winoka, so if she looked out of the window at all, she would think I was leaving.
The minute I started the car, the radio went on, as it always does, set as it is to a station that plays classical music. After eleven, there's nothing but jazz: the smooth, swishing rhythms, the muted complaints of the horns, and the almost endless tour of emotion only hinted at there in the temper of music. I'm not a jazz lover, but somehow it seemed perfect just then, an excursion into another world completely than the frigid, naked expanse of prairie beneath a perfectly cloudless night.
East of Goshen the land rises into one of those swells that a thousand prairie writers have seen as a wave in the flatland ocean. It's not a hill at all; a kid with a sled wouldn't do a thing from its summit. But it stands up high enough to let a person look down on the town of Goshen and count the three streetlights down main between the bare bones of the maples and elms in the yards of its houses.
I pulled over on the gravel road, and stepped out into the cold, dousing the lights. It was one of those shiny cold nights when high school kids could brag about driving all the way back from Winoka without using headlights. In the dearth of wind, Midwestern cold isn't intolerable. The dry air seeps like a wash of cold water into your lungs with each deep breath, and it's bright like a lamp's glow against your cheeks. Oddly enough, on a cold, moonlit night on the prairie, dark as it is, everything sparkles. Mercury lights at a thousand farms glitter like landborn stars; whole towns sit against the darkness like spilled jewels.
But it's impossible to catch the prairie's mighty beauty with a camera. I've seen many artists attempt to catch the depth of its grandeur on canvas, but I've not seen any that succeed. Probably half the homes in the nation have mountain portraits on their walls. Forests have depth and mystery; our own deepest human roots link us to the trees. But the beauty of the prairies lies in their almost massive naked power; it's a landscape without secrets, and it simply can't be caught in any kind of a portrait.
I was thinking of the prairie's immensity, thinking, oddly enough, of Red Chinese. When I was a boy the Cold War was being waged, and I remember being terrified of the communists because it was said there was no fighting with an army that would come in waves a million strong. March the Chinese a hundred abreast into the sea, it was said, and you would never deplete their population. Militarily they were ill-equipped, people said, because they had no sophisticated arsenal; but one feared their sheer numbers, the immensity of the force itself, thousands of corpses piling up on each other but still more bodies coming forward, while our best machine guns shot themselves into uselessness. It was part of the scare of the times, of course, but there is something in the immensity of that image that compares with the size and the force of the prairies, huge and relentless.
It was guilt in me, even then I suppose, that made me think the way I did.
I've never lived in a city, but I was thinking how it would be easy to hide from God in streets clogged with people. It's not so easy here. When that last trumpet sounds, no one will run to the prairies for cover.