I had been right to want to drive to the Midwest, taking only the back roads. Every time my husband, John, and I had taken a trip more than a few miles away, we’d flown, and had endured the increasingly irritating airport protocols. I’d finally begun to wear what amounted to pajamas so that I wouldn’t have to all but strip before security guards who seemed either worrisomely bored or, equally worrisome, inflated with a mirthful self-importance. It was hard to believe that air travel had ever been considered glamorous, when now what most people felt was a seesawing between anxiety and exasperation. “Well, folks, looks like our time has been pushed back again,” the captain would say, and everyone would shake their heads and snap their newspapers and mutter to their neighbor. And if there was unexpected turbulence, a quivering silence fell.
Now, on this road trip, my mind seemed to uncrinkle, to breathe, to present to itself a cure for a disease it had not, until now, known it had. Rather than the back of an airline seat or endless, identical rest stops on the interstate, I saw farmhouses in the middle of protective stands of trees, silos reaching for the sky, barns faded to the soft red of tomato soup. The weather everywhere stayed stubbornly warm, and people seemed edgily grateful—what could this mean, sixty-degree weather in November? I drove through one small town where old people sat on rockers on front porches and kids tore around corners on bikes and young mothers, jackets tied around their waists, proudly pushed babies in strollers.
I passed white wooden churches, red brick schools, stores with names familiar only to the locals, and movie theaters offering a single choice. I saw cats stationed at living room windows, horses switching tails against clouds of gnats, cows in pastures grouped together like gossips. These scenes seemed imbued with a beauty richer than normal; they seemed so perfect as to have been staged. I felt as though I were driving through a museum full of pastoral bas-reliefs, and I took in the details that way, with wonder and appreciation. That was the tolerable part of my new vulnerability, the positive side of feeling my heart had migrated out of my body to hang on my chest like a necklace.
There was an infinite variety of trees, and I felt ashamed to know the names of so few of them. John and I used to talk about how the current phase of the moon as well as the names of trees and flowers and birds—at least the local ones!—should be front and center in people’s brains; maybe such a connection to nature would help to make us more civilized. But I was as guilty as anyone; the only tree I knew beyond pines and willows and birches was the black locust, and that was because I liked the way John had described the blossoms’ scent: like grape lollipops. I passed massive-trunked trees standing powerful and alone, and imagined how in summer their leafy canopy would provide a gigantic circle of shade. I passed a group of reedy saplings bending like ballerinas in the wind. Willow trees dipped their bare branches into pond water like girls testing the temperature with their toes.
I felt a low and distinct kind of relaxation. Time became real. Nature became real: the woods, the sky, the lakes, the high bluffs and low valleys, the acres of spent fields, the muddy riverbanks. Live photos flashed before me: Here, a construction worker eating a sandwich, one foot up on the bumper of his truck. Here, a woman in curlers loading groceries into her car. Here, a child glimpsed through a kitchen window, standing on a stool to reach into a cupboard; there, a beauty operator giving an old lady a perm.
I saw in a way I never had before the beauty and diversity of our earnest labor on the earth, and also our ultimate separateness. This helped my pain metamorphose into something less personal and more universal, something organic and natural. And that helped give me strength. Someone had to die first. It turned out to be John. Nothing more. Nothing less. What fell to me now, what I was driving toward, was the creation of a new kind of life, minus the ongoing influence of what I had loved and depended upon most in the world. In a way, my situation reminded me of a little girl I’d once seen exiting a roller coaster at a state fair, all wide eyes and pale face and shaky knees. When her brother asked if she’d like to ride again, she said, “Not until I’m way readier.” I felt myself trapped in line for a ride I was not nearly ready for, looking back but moving forward in the only direction I could go.
Mile by mile, the country unfurled before me—in bright morning light, throughout golden afternoons, under the pastel-colored skies of evenings. Once, just outside of Cleveland, when the sky was lavender and the clouds pink, I pulled to the side of the freeway to watch until darkness smudged the colors into night. Land rushed up, then fell away; rushed up, then fell away. I became intimately aware of the lay of the land, felt the rise and fall of it in my stomach as I drove up and down steep hills. I deliberately pushed everything out of my head but what was before me. Still, every now and then a quick thrill raced up my spine in the form of a thought: I am my own again. Sorrow that lay pooled inside me gave over to a kind of exhilaration in those moments; the relief was stunning.
Though impermanent. One night, I checked into a motel at around ten o’clock. Next door, I heard a couple making love. Their sounds were sloppy and slightly hysterical—Drunk, I thought. I turned the radio up loud, ran a bath, and while sitting at the edge of the tub unwrapping the absurdly little bar of soap, I felt the weight of my loss move slowly back into me. After I dried off, I sat before the television and marveled at the drivel that passed for entertainment. I turned it off, finally, then sat at the side of the bed and stared out at nothing. I picked up the telephone and dialed my home number. I heard the characteristic tones, then, The number you have reached has been disconnected. I hung up, closed my eyes, and took in a deep breath. Then I knelt at the side of the bed and pushed my face into my hands.
Late in the afternoon of the third day, I pulled over to a frozen-yogurt stand near the center of a small town that looked particularly attractive to me. A tall, early-thirtyish man waited on me. He was beginning to bald already and had a distressing complexion. But his eyes, as though in compensation, were a brilliant blue. “That’ll be a dollar sixty-five,” he said, handing me the raspberry cone I’d ordered. I pulled two dollars from my wallet and handed them to him, then took a lick of the yogurt. “Delicious,” I said, and smiled at him. He smiled back, hesitantly, then fussed with the register for a long while as I watched, first in mild annoyance, then in sympathy, finally in utter fascination. Eventually, the man turned and called to someone in the back room. “Louise?” he said, apparently too softly, for then he called a bit louder, “Louise?”
“WHAT?” she yelled back.
The man straightened the paper hat on his head. “Could you come out and help me?” he asked. “Please?”
Louise came out to the cash register, scowling. She was wearing a maroon sweat suit and was massively overweight. She wore her hair in a high ponytail. It was beautiful hair, thick and auburn-colored; I concentrated on it while she concentrated on me. Finally, I looked at her face. “Hello,” I said.
She jutted her chin at me. “How you doing.” There was mischief in her eyes.
“Was that you yelling back there?” I asked.
She grinned. “Yeah, that was me, whistling while I work.” She jerked her head toward the man. “This goes on all the livelong day.”
“Oh, well,” I said. “That’s all right.”
“Easy for you to say.” She turned to glare at the man, who studied his shoes. Then she fixed the register and stomped off.
“Okay!” the man said. “Says here I owe you thirty-five cents!” He handed me the change.
I thanked him, then, laughing, said, “Though I think you could have figured that out on your own.”
He looked doubtful.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “Don’t you think we’re getting way too dependent on these damn machines?”
Now he looked grateful. “Idn’t it?”
I thanked him again and headed for the door. But I turned back before I opened it. “Could you tell me what town this is?”
He pointed to the floor. “This here town where we’re at now?”
He straightened, made himself taller. “This is Stewart, Illinois, and I’ll tell you what, it’s only forty-nine miles from Chicago. Exactamento. I been here my whole life. It’s a good town, Stewart. Is this what you’re looking for?”
I hesitated, then answered, “Yes.”
As I started to open the door again, I heard him clear his throat and say, “Miss?”
I turned back. He was blushing, but with a kind of borrowed confidence, he said, “Would you like to be on my radio show?”
I tried hard not to let my astonishment show. “You have a radio show?”
“Yes, ma’am, Talk of the Town. I get guests from town on, and we talk. That’s the show.”
I thought of the empty miles I’d driven through to get to this town, the few places of business I’d seen thus far. I didn’t recall anything that looked like it might be—or house—a broadcasting studio. “Where?” I asked.
“Right at WMRZ a few blocks over. It’s above the drugstore. I’ve had Louise on my show—we talked about yogurt: Where has it been and where is it going? Louise liked being on a lot, you can ask her. She got dressed up and everything, got herself a new purse for that show.” He lowered his voice and leaned over the counter to say, “Louise is the one sponsors me. Her bite is way worse than her bark, if you know what I mean.”
I hesitated, then refrained from correcting him. Instead, I said, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.”
“So do you want to be on? I tape every Sunday morning. Six-thirty. You’d have to get up early, but you’re going to church, anyways, just get ready sooner.”
“Well, I . . .”
“You don’t need to answer now,” the man said. “ If you want to do it, just come back and see me here. Or you can call me. My name’s Ed Selwin. My number’s in the book. It’s spelled exactly more or less like it sounds. You can think on it. Just, I figured if you’s moving here, it’d be good to interview you. You being a new person and all.”
“But I . . . did I say I was moving here?”
“Not exactly. I just saw your loaded-up car with out-of-state plates, and then you said this is the town you were looking for . . .”
“And since you’d be a new person here, it’d be interesting to see where you came from and such. Like that. And don’t worry—people get nervous being on the radio, just a natural thing, but I’ll settle you right down.”
“Okay, well . . . I’ll let you know.” I waved goodbye and began licking the quickly melting yogurt. Inside the car, I started the engine, turned on the heat—the weather had finally become seasonally appropriate—and finished eating. I had an odd but familiar feeling inside, a kind of surety without grounding. It was something I often felt as a child, and it drove me to do things very quickly and without regret. I wondered if I should say, Yes, here, this is the place, just like that, and then go in search of somewhere to live. Why not? What had I to lose, really? I was in the middle of the country, as I’d wanted to be. It looked to be a charming little town. And anyway, I wouldn’t mind moving back toward a certain boldness of spirit, a reliance on a kind of luck I’d always enjoyed. I remembered a story I once heard about a couple from a farm in Iowa looking for a place to live in Washington, D.C. They weren’t having any success; everything was incredibly expensive, and to make matters worse, they had three dogs. They became greatly discouraged, and then one day the woman threw up her hands and said, “All right. Let’s just drive ten minutes one way and then turn left. And then drive ten minutes more and turn right. And then ten minutes straight, and if we don’t find something, we’ll give up.” What they drove to was a huge farmhouse just outside the city, and a man was standing outside of it. Feeling more than a little foolish, the couple asked if the man happened to know of anything around for rent. Turned out he had a little house on his property he used for hired hands that was newly vacated. Freshly painted. They could have it for next to nothing if they’d help a bit with chores. And three dogs? No problem. John once said, “Sometimes serendipity is just intention, unmasked.” I think I answered him with some sort of vague Mmm-hmm, right, hidden as I was behind the Globe’s book review. But I’d always remembered it. And now I thought I knew what he’d meant. When you were willing to say what you really wanted, something just might help you along.