As unclear dreams go, we gassed up a few miles back and are now pulling into town. Town. An untidy strew of decrepit and peeling clapboard buildings. Okay, a town. After paying for a room – off-white décor, sticky carpet – I step out behind M. into the main street.
“Wonder where’s the best place to eat.”
“May only be one place,” says M.
We gaze vaguely eastward over a sunburned field, absorbing the clear blue brilliance.
Without warning, the unthinkable. A thick column climbs like a tumorous limb above the horizon – squirming, turbulent reds, charcoals, yellows, deep infected orange – blooms impossibly high in the deep blue, before flattening itself like a roiling brain atop a crippled spine, an utterly broken thing.
“I guess it doesn’t matter now,” I say, my heart liquefying when I see M.’s haunted hopeless face. People are crying and someone retches in the street. I step forward and hold M.
“Where is that?”
“Uh-uh, I’m not even sure where we are. New York City, maybe? DC?”
“We’d better get inside.”
In the room, we search for shelter, for something solid, but the furniture is rickety. Even the sagging doorframes seem unworthy. Faithlessly, we force shut windows that barely fit in their frames.
Then we hear it.
An aberrant rumble swelling around the hint of a ruinous howl. Distant yet closing. We stand senseless, embracing. Awaiting the end (the end), an eventuality we couldn’t have remotely considered earlier that day, adrift yet untroubled on warm ribbons of Midwestern highway.
An already hot day grows hotter. The rumble soon a catastrophe, assaulting the ramshackle structure in a storm of screaming heat. A violent, bewitched twilight come early, wholly uninvited. We stand for a long time, clasped in that shuddering embrace, amid hot unholy gales, me feeling the most bewildering blend of pure love and abject sorrow I’ve ever felt, or will likely ever feel again.
Blessed mercy, it passes. I’ve no idea how long we remain there, shocked immobile, waiting for our stampeding hearts to return to us. Outside, fiery buildings crackle and dance. Thick coiling ropes of ash trail in the wake not only of gusts of wind but behind the gathering numbers of fleeing people; these latter gape-faced, blankly intent on outrunning the hurt in the air. The sound of cars being started and revved, of doors slamming. A few individuals are trying to direct these instant refugees, gesturing solemn at intersections, as if civic order were suddenly vital… albeit futile – with a lone artery feeding the Interstate, and an entire town attempting to simultaneously mainline, everything gridlocks.
In the motel, we tie cursory bandannas over our mouths – too numb yet for regret, but oh so lonely – and sit watching thwarted drivers scowl against the backdrop of a smoking town beneath the preternatural murk of a heartrending sky.
One of us, not sure which, says: “When it’s our turn to head back west, at least we’ll have a full tank of gas.”
* * * * *