A: Yeah, once.
A: It was when I was sixteen, and I was living right near the confluence of the Mississippi and the Wisconsin. Well into the Driftless.
A: No, we moved there when I was twelve. It was all around the Midwest for us: Omaha for a while, Michigan City after, St. Louis, Peoria.
A: [laughs] The Army wouldn’t have taken him. He was a poet with far more talent than renown. Hope that doesn’t sound pretentious — he wasn’t. He managed to get two-year teaching appointments at little universities, and he’d get an office without a window and a used typewriter, and he’d teach and host a Christmas party and then our lease was up and it was off to the next city.
A: Yeah. It’s a December night, mid to late December. The snow is melting in a frigid rain.
I’m driving on a road between the hills, and it’s around eleven on a weeknight, the kind of night when I have to drive because the memories are getting life back into them, rising up in a clatter. There’s mist coming off the snow.
And I’m trying to focus on the mist and the shadows and the rain slicing across the valley, and none of it is working. The nerves are back, and it’s physical, too, like something is wrapped around my torso and won’t let up.
And I see him. He’s walking on the shoulder. I can barely even tell it’s a person at first – just a blurred mass, lurching.
I get closer, and it’s a man coming towards me, I think, a tall man with a strange stoop in his back. He’s holding a coat against the rain.
I slow down, and I turn the wipers on high so I can get a better look at him. He’s got his thumb out.
I take a few breaths, and I grit my teeth, and I pull over to let him in.
A: Scared isn’t the right word for it. Reluctant dread is more like it, I think. I guess it was that— It was that I didn’t want someone else knocking around inside my brain. Not just in the moment, but for my life. I didn’t need another story.
But I picked him up anyway, because the rain was frigid.
It was one of my dad’s coworkers. He was another adjunct getting paid by the student. Seemed nice enough the times I’d met him. I’d never noticed the weird gait or the hunchback before.
So, I roll down my window, and I say hi, yeah, I’m Prof. Kendall’s daughter, we met at the Christmas party last week, and he just looks at me with an expression of absolute heartbreaking warmth.
“Could you take me home?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, and ask where he lives. He gives me an address near the edge of town.
He gets in the back seat and leaves the door open while he shakes the rain off his coat.
“I really must say, I’ve had the most incredible experience,” he says.
I ask what it was.
“I’ve been asleep for years,” he says. “Years and years, tumbling through half-dreams and flashes of light and Hell, and it seems I’ve just woken up.”
And I assume he’s had an epiphany, right? Because he’s a poet. That’s how poets talk. So, I ask what he’s woken up from.
“Nightmares,” he says. “Bad omens. Places beyond.” He pauses for a second and slouches down in the seat. “But now I’m here. In the world. I can feel the flesh beneath my skin and I can smell the green mist coming from the trees.”
I look back in the rearview mirror and beneath the fogged-up back window I can see that there’s just this pure love to his face as he stares out at the blurry landscape.
“It’s snowing, isn’t it?” he asks me half a minute later.
“I think it’s rain,” I say.
“In my dreams, I couldn’t bring the snow,” he says, a little despair in his voice. “I could bring sun and rain and fire, every element but snow.”
And then, with wonder: “Dear Lord, it is beautiful out tonight.”
That’s when he starts convulsing. I notice in the mirror first. His head jerks to the side, and he grips his arms around his chest and starts lurching back and forth in his seat, against the seat belt. And he screams, softly, but with great pain.
“Are you alright?” I ask. He moans.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?” I ask, louder, to more moaning.
I pull over, of course. I turn the key and look around and he’s still going at it, moaning and screaming and pulling at his hair, and the muscles on his face are achingly tense to keep his eyes horribly shut.
Then, as suddenly as it began, without warning it just ends, full-stop. He sits upright. He loosens his arms. He opens his eyes, and they are wet with tears of innocence.
“Who are you?” he asks.
“I’m Professor Kendall’s daughter,” I say.
“Can you take me home?” he asks.
“I can take you home,” I say.
“I must tell you,” he says, “I’ve had the most exceptional experience.”
“What was it?” I ask.
“I was asleep— Lord knows how long. I went away— Lord knows where. And it seems I’ve just woken up.”
A: I never found out. I suppose it probably was. Dad never mentioned it, but when I’d go visit him at work, I’d walk past where the guy’s office used to be and I’d see that they’d taken his name off of the plaque on the door. I can only assume he got help.
A: No, I didn’t. I was sixteen and terrified. Mom and Dad would know I’d picked up a hitchhiker if I dropped him off at the hospital. I just dropped him off at home the way he’d told me to.
A: Three or four more times throughout the ride. It was on a four-minute cycle. He’d be cogent for about the length of a radio single, and then he’d start again. I made sure to wait until the convulsions had stopped before I dropped him off. I made sure he went inside. I think he had a family — has a family.
A: Yeah, has. I’ve got no reason to think he isn’t still alive.
A: Painful. Yeah, I’m sure it was, for a while.
A: No. You’re wrong on that one. Honestly, I think it was just living, the kind of living anyone else does, compressed. Tension and release. Birth and death. Light and dark; pain and joy; a universe and a God made of cruelty and beauty, the same object, each only real because the other exists; chiaroscuro: that’s all there is, anyway.
A: You know, I cried in my car for a few minutes afterward. I don’t cry. It’s not my scene. But after that, I cried.
A: Pity and envy? Both. Neither. Something beyond either of those, honestly.
A: That’s all I’ve got.
One more thing: after I got home, after I’d locked the car and slipped quietly into the house, and after I’d gone up to my room and tried to sleep, I heard a fluttering sound on the window, and another, and another. And I opened my window, and the full moon was burning a hole through the snowing clouds.
THOMAS SINGER is a sophomore at Middlebury College, where he’s studying Political Science. He has been writing for a while now but this is his first publication. He was born in Chicago but raised in Palmyra, New York, which, fun fact #1, is where Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) is from, and, fun fact #2, is about eight billion times smaller than Chicago.