Fear of Widths
a short story
When they got off the plane at Mitchell Field, there was nobody there to meet them. That's when it really sank in.
He had to sit down in the waiting area until the sobs stopped coming. His wife held him, awkward in the hard airport chairs; passing strangers looked concerned but did not stop, intent on their own business. After only a little while of this he blew his nose and joined the crowd. He was already pretty much cried out. But his heart sat in the hollow of his chest like a lonely farmhouse on the vast prairie.
So many times I've flown to this airport, he thought as they walked to the baggage carousel, and now I barely recognize it. Every time before, his parents had met him at the gate. Smaller and smaller, grayer and grayer. After the heart attack Dad lost weight (finally, after years of nagging) but it didn't make him look healthy; instead he looked shriveled, like all the juice had been squeezed out of him. Mom just got smaller and rounder every year, and moved more and more slowly.
And now they were gone. Run down in a crosswalk by a drunk who ran a red light. The funeral was tomorrow.
The rent-a-car place wanted to give him some American tuna boat instead of the Japanese compact he'd reserved. When he received the news, he felt for a brief unreal moment that he stood on a vast whistling plain, cold and alone -- but the feeling passed as his wife began to protest. He touched her arm to quiet her and said to the agent, "We'll take it."
He didn't realize until later that the car was a Plymouth, like the one his folks had when he was in sixth grade.
The airport interchange was under construction. The Billy Mitchell bomber that had once stood triumphantly at the entrance to the airport was now stuck on a pedestal like some drab and awkward butterfly, tiny and barely visible to the speeding traffic. Nothing was familiar. But when the car pulled onto the freeway, he saw the hotel where he'd attended a high school job fair. The gas station where he'd tanked up on the way out of town, returning to college after Christmas break. Billboards for a bank whose logo had changed, but whose name brought a thirty-year-old jingle ringing into his head.
And the horizon.
How could he have forgotten the horizon?
In Portland there was no horizon. Not like this. In Portland there was always something between you and the edge of the planet: trees, or mountains, or clouds. Even in those places where there was a bit of horizon, there was something to draw the eye away from it. Something important and grandiose, like Mount Hood.
Here there was nothing bigger than the horizon itself. Oh, there were stands of trees here and there, but they were funny little round things, just beginning to bud -- a bare wisp of greenery like a teenager's underfunded beard. They didn't have a chance against the line that went all the way around.
The horizon was a lariat whirling around his head at eye level. A shimmering, dangerous line. But who was twirling it?
The blare of a horn and his wife's gasp brought his attention back to the road, and he braked hard. The red lights ahead got much too close much too fast, but the squeal of tires did not end in a crunch, and a few minutes later he was back up to highway speed.
He gripped the steering wheel harder to still the trembling in his hands, to maintain his focus.
It was difficult to watch the road when the infinite horizon sucked at his attention. It was so very flat here. Even the tiny rise of a freeway overpass was enough to give a view for miles. A panorama of factories and churches, standing out from a background of boxy little houses: tiny square things, brick and clapboard, with pointed roofs against the snows. So simple, like a child's drawing of a house. Each with a little concrete stoop, just two or three steps high, and a simple, flat lawn of green grass. Perhaps a bush or two. Not like the overhanging roofs, deep porches, and sprawling rhododendrons of his neighborhood in Portland.
How could a cartoon of a house keep you safe from the vast open spaces? Portland houses had solidity; those overhanging Craftsman roofs enclosed, protected, defended. Just in case Mount Hood decided to blow off its lid like Mount St. Helens, revealing the horizon beyond, they were ready. Milwaukee houses were naive, defenseless. They clung to the flat landscape like lumps of chewed gum; their only strategy was to be too inoffensive to bother with.
The houses were tidy here, but the cars were in bad shape. The one passing him right now was nothing but a lace of rust, its bumpers held on by bungee cords. Back home -- back in Portland -- a car that age might have five more years in it if you kept the oil changed. But here they salted the roads.
Or was it the salt, really? That was what his father had told him. But how he felt it was the great widths of this flat landscape that sucked the life out of cars. Storms swept hard across the prairies, with no mountains to block their effect; maybe the North Pole, its effects also undamped by terrain, pulled molecules of metal out of cars, leaving them riddled and weakened. Then the weather finished them off.
They got off the freeway and headed west on Capitol. Parks and fast-food places that might have been anywhere; suburbs whose names he'd forgotten. Seen from street level, the houses weren't really so tidy: paint was peeling, shingles loose. Midwestern winters were hard on houses. Or maybe it was the neighborhood; he had not lived here in so long, he didn't know if this was one of the bad ones. Probably that was it. There were too many boarded-up storefronts here for a "good" neighborhood.
But something in him believed those stores were not closed, just boarded up against the pull of the prairie -- the infinite widths of horizon that kept drawing his eyes from the road ahead of him. Like a hurricane, he thought. He imagined cautious Milwaukee shopkeepers boarding their windows against the horizon: grim Germanic faces, starched white aprons, pencils tucked behind ears... and ten-penny nails clamped between white lips, eyes glancing over shoulders as the shopkeepers nailed up another sheet of plywood.
Unlike a hurricane, though, the horizon never went away.
He turned right on Brookfield. Though closer to home, this area was less familiar. It had been farm country while he was growing up; now it was all strip malls and condominiums. Square boxes bolted to the land, with parking lots like scabs.
He gripped the wheel so hard his knuckles whitened, but his hands still trembled. He was sure his wife could feel the car shimmy. She touched the back of his hand, an offer of comfort. He held her hand briefly, then clutched the wheel again. Not speaking.
His father had always gone very quiet at times of high emotion. His silences burned like pure hydrogen, a hot invisible flame.
Left on Bluebird. Lots of new houses, but there was the Johanssens' place. Someone had stuck a cedar deck onto it and given it a hideous sky-blue paint job.
And now his house. This tiny, cartoon thing, with its faded yellow paint, had been his home for sixteen years? That gable, that black window, had been his bedroom? He had often wished for a tree outside his window, like the trees down which boys in adventure stories climbed, but he had had nothing but a sheer drop to the concrete patio. That drop didn't look like so much from here.
It wasn't his bedroom now. It was his mother's sewing room. Had been. Empty now. Empty of people; full of possessions, of memories. All had to be sorted, cleared, sold off. His wife had told him about clearing out her grandmother's trailer after the funeral. But there had been sisters and cousins to help there; it had been a family event. He was an only child.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay in a hotel?" He realized he'd been sitting in the driveway with the ignition off for some time. Still gripping the wheel. Staring up at the bedroom window.
"No. Waste of good money, when there's a whole house sitting here empty." It was exactly what his mother would have said.
"Well, we should go inside then." She opened her door, and a polite repeated chime sounded from under the dashboard. A cold March wind tugged at her hair. "Are you OK?"
"I'm... good enough. Just leave me here for a moment." He pulled the keys from the ignition, silencing the chime, and handed them to his wife. "The key with the yellow thing on it opens the front door. I'll be along in a minute." She kissed him on the cheek and closed the door behind herself. He heard the trunk open and close.
The horizon was tremendous. Terrifying. Three hundred and sixty degrees across. He was glad of the car's roof pillars, glad of the tiny house and the garage, glad of anything that could hide a little of it.
The sun was beginning to set, that enormous sky shading orange to purple, brushed with trails of cloud like finger paints. Lights came on in the house.
Finally he could delay no longer. He unbuckled his seat belt. He opened the door.
He clung to the armrest as he climbed unsteadily out of the car. Gravel crunched under his shoes.
He stood next to the car, holding onto the door with both hands.
Then, knowing what awaited him, he swallowed and let go of the door.
Slowly at first, he fell away from the car. Gravel sliding under his shoes, then under his knees. When he hit the black plastic edging at the edge of the driveway he began to tumble, rolling over and over across the flat, green lawn. It was like all the times he'd rolled down grassy hillsides as a child, the dirt and grass thudding against his shoulders and elbows. But as he tumbled faster and faster he began to panic. Clawed at the grass, pulling up clumps of sod and earth with his fingernails. No use. The tidy little house with the glowing windows, clinging like a limpet to the flat, flat prairie, dwindled each time it came into view. Then he was no longer tumbling, but falling.
He fell all the way to the horizon.
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