Inside the cloud the future storm was staging, its raging eye caged in its fist, its potential for destruction masquerading as soft lofty brume: just another summer's afternoon in heaven.
This was weather: this is what the country was about.
Everywhere we went--New England or New York, the North, the South, the Plains states or the West--we talked about the weather. Because weather was news. For two nights in a row now, all the networks had led the evening news with bulletins about the weather: a heatwave in the South, a drought in the Midwest, a twister down in Texas.
This meant something, Holden knew. This meant something big. Something strange was going on. You can't stop feeling something strange is going on when people disappear entirely from the narrative, from news--when news starts coming at you faceless.
That's what news about the weather is, it's faceless.
It's the absence of man's fingerprint on history.
It's the advent of a new age of news where the only things worth sending crews to are encounters of the katabatic kind.
To hell with Bosnia. To hell with Kurds. To hell with Cuba when a cyclonic force is massing on the ocean off the coast of Florida and a robot in a satellite is on location, live.
That is our news in the millennium.
To hell with 60 Minutes and The New York Times. To hell with The Economist, Le Monde, the Beeb, Bernstein and Woodward. Honey, they are old and cold and it is hot out there. And you can catch a headline on the Weather Channel any time of day.
"D'ja hear about that heat they's havin' in the South?" the taxi driver asks him at the airport.
"It's record breakin'. Scary."
"What's so scary about heat?"
"Murder rate goes up. People lose their cool. Me, I'm prayin' soon a blizzard will move in."
In August, Holden emphasizes.
It's a long shot, the driver shrugs. But stranger things has happen, he's been told.
Meanwhile August in Virginia brews daily rain.
Baking air moils upward in a mass so solid you can see it. Sometimes it sits, yellow, stinking on the James, on Ol' Jim River, like an invalid too sick to rise. Sometimes it creeps into the city, seeks its dissipation in the streets. It stares at us, the heat: it draws its bead on us and makes us plead for breeze. It smothers us in sheets. It drives us crazy.
Every evening, from the creaking porches, from the screened-in vistas of the suburbs, from the fields of brown tobacco leaf and crackling corn in Surry and in Prince George Counties, we look skyward as the day fades, and we read the clouds. Without knowing we are learning how, we learn to forecast August thunderstorms by omens, from the signs. We learn to tell when it is coming--rain.
Sometimes it's the birds who give the game away, taking to the trees.
Sometimes it's a smell, the smell of copper when the sky goes green.
Sometimes it's the rhumatiz, lightnin' in our bones.
People who can read it best, the best storm prophets, are the ones who navigate through thunder on their runs to heaven and they had kept his airplane on the ground. Hour had ticked by. Then another. Two. The afternoon passed. The sky above the runways had turned dark, an amber welt had risen where the sun had slipped into the Potomac. Holden had been traveling by plane for more than fifty hours and he hadn't slept. Or at least he felt as if he hadn't slept. And anyway he had no memory of it. Sleep. Do we remember sleeping?
Or do we just remember dreams.
His only recent memory was of travel. Traveling from place to place where all the places seemed the same: He had gone from Sarajevo in an armored transport two, maybe it was now three, days ago. Since then he had been moving like a mechanized target through what seemed to be a single firing range along a midway of a carnival: series of airports: Belgrade/Frankfurt/Dulles/National. At some point, too, in the last fifty hours, he had taken a taxi into D.C. and checked into the Hay-Adams. His heart, perhaps to prove that it was ticking, skipped a beat when he caught sight of his nation's Capitol, its pearly dome, in--what else?--dawns early light. It had been morning: shit: this morning. Checking his watch against the local time on the Arrivals and Departures screen, he starts to realize just how well and truly fucked he is. Completely hammered. No idea where he is in terms of days. "Scuse me," he says. He leans forward toward this fat guy in a baseball cap. The cap--black cap--has Orioles in fancy script across the front of it in orange. "What day is this?"
"I'm with you pal," the guy responds.
"You're with me . . . ?"
"If I'd drove I'd been back by now. It's the friggin' weather."
"The weather, yeah. Everywhere you go. There it is. Weather."
"Wasn't always, though."
"Oh, like in the good ol' days . . ."
". . . when there wasn't any weather."
"No there was weather. Didn't stop us doin' what we wanted though. When we wanted to. Didn't have these laws back then."
". . . the weather didn't."
"Back then the weather--it just was. Pure and simple. You could fly whenever you damn wanted. Go wherever. No one told you what was safe to fly or where or when to fly it. Took your life into your hands and flew. Now it's all this govment regulation."
"Uh-huh," Holden confirms. "You got some problem with air safety?"
"Where you from?"
"Why's it matter to you where I'm from?"
"Nothing. Maybe we both know someone. It's just a way of finding out."
"What is that, some kind of code?"
"I don't know--the Masons. Fellows in Christ . . . what difference does it make?"
"What are you, paranoid?"
"Absolutely. Like if I'm paranoid I'm gonna sit here and admit it. To some guy in a bird hat, even."
"Hey the Orioles ain't birds."
"And hey the Redskins ain't the first Americans . . ."
That little inner mechanism that functions as his combination shit detector/smoke alarm goes off, reminding him to check his attitude.
"So is it Sunday?" he asks. "Or have I skipped a day somewhere?"
The guy just stares at him.
"I've been traveling without a break for almost fifty hours," Holden volunteers.
"Been on the road, have you?" the guys asks real sarcastic.
"More like in the air. "
"No I mean since where from?"
"That's in your former Yugoslavia," Holden condescends. "Don't tell me you never heard of Yugoslavia . . ."
Guy grunts again.
"Ever hear of newspapers? Ever read one?"
"How old are you, son--twenty-three, twenty-four? Cause you're an angry little shit for somebody your age."
"Twenty-nine, actually. And all I asked was what day it is."
"August six. Ever heard of that? Dropped the goods on Hiroshima. You weren't even born."
"No. I wasn't. And frankly, that's my virtue."
"That I don't have to be your history lesson."
Guy leans forward on his knees and jabs a finger at him. "Oh but son, you are . . ."
Oh, man: things weren't always thus.
Once upon a time he'd been this wunderkind from Brookline, Massachusetts. Only child--apple of his mothers eye, spoiled rotten to the core in Dad's opinion. Eager beaver smart-ass type, a jerk with girls. Verbal wizard, parents were the kind who talked things through. Things like The Environment. The Holocaust. Civil Disobedience. Our Role in Nicaragua. First kid in the neighborhood to own Nintendo. First to write a paper (after Star Wars) on the probable effect of computer graphics on the movie industry. First to start his own retirement fund (age twelve). First to run the Boston Marathon. First to keep a crimson banner in his junior high school locker that said Harvard.
Yes indeedy he was going to be a millionaire by thirty: meet his Ur-Babe snowboarding in Telluride: give her that black lab in place of an engagement ring: fuck like rabbits: help her write her Ph.D. dissertation on pediatric mood disorders. Easy peasy: loft conversion in Tribeca, house on Tangier island, Chesapeake. Career in . . . ? Politics? Land and/or water rights? Venture cap? Made no difference, really. Career was just a conduit from studenthood to tonsa-money.
So then what happened.
Something must have happened.
He'd remember in a minute.
Where do dreams go when they die?
Come to think of it there was never any weather in your former Yugoslavia. People died and people starved and people turned venous blue with cold but all the while he never noticed weather. Even though there must have been some. What the sky looked like behind the shelling. Why everybody said their legs were cold. How everybody's boots got soaked. Why everything was drenched. You just don't see specific weather when you're in a general climate. When that climate is called war. Nobody's ever gonna ask you, Bosnia? Oh really? What's the weather like out there?