They weren’t voices. They were more like the heels of his unborn children he had watched kick against the arc of his wife’s swollen belly. He would feel them often kicking at the thin surface of his enveloped life. He had been aware of their presence for years, but lately they seemed to rage. Voices he could have muted, but these risings made it difficult to breathe. They felt like boys fist fighting.
Discerning their origins proved difficult. God knows he tried. Catching sight of a co-worker’s cleavage or the last strivings of dusk before the conquest of night or smelling his daughter’s hair as she lay against his chest; these and more seemed to be occasions for the risings. He believed them, however, not to be the reasons.
His few older friends had told him your forties will bring unexpected gifts. He didn’t know what they meant then and now, at forty-five, he still wasn’t sure. About all he had seen of his forties so far could be summed up in one word: loss. In the past five years, he had lost his father he dearly loved, two “perfect” jobs in the course of nine months, the feeling that his wife needed him, and the belief that prayer matters, let alone works. Were these the gifts of which his friends spoke?
As he flipped through bills and credit card offers that August afternoon, he noticed a plain white envelope addressed to him. Upon closer inspection, the name on the return address brought a surprising feeling of excitement.
He’d not heard from Jake since his fortieth birthday party, and then only via an email sent from halfway around the world. He and Jake had dated sisters in college and despite their own different personalities found the common ground of Julie and Kristin McKinney to be strong enough to bond a friendship. Jake and Julie went their separate ways during their senior year, but he had married Kristin the June following May’s graduation. That was almost twenty years ago now.
Jake had vowed let’s get together at least once a year and they had done their best to make it happen. Like clockwork, Jake’d call every spring and announce a destination that would allow them the space to wrestle with angels or demons or both, if need be. The Grand Canyon, Glacier, Big Bend, the Brooks Range; Jake always seemed to know what geography best fit their season of life. But about six years ago, he’d taken a consulting job for a firm in Germany and the annual pilgrimages stopped, just like that. Loss.
The envelope held a 3x5 note card with a message on one side and a key taped to the other.
Hey, old buddy,
Hope you’re well. The key to my latest investment. Vacant the month of October. An honor if you’d occupy. Beautiful cabin, fully stocked. Enjoy. Leave key on mantle.
He flipped the note card over and lifted the tape as if gingerly removing a band-aid. Underneath the fresh-cut key were directions to the cabin and the phone number of Jake’s nearest neighbors. This was rather unexpected. An unexpected gift? He breathed deep. The heels were still there.
He remembered Bly’s words about the soul work a man may need to do: to go alone to a mountain cabin for three months, write poetry, canoe down a river, and dream. Three months was out of the question, but he could negotiate thirty days with Kristin. Her openness to his need to get away often surprised him. You’re always a better man when you return. So, go. The kids would miss him but school would be in full swing, full of autumn’s distractions. His current freelance project was due mid-September with the next scheduled job starting in November. Maybe this could work.
The rest of August and most of September were a blur. Kristin had agreed to his trip, like he suspected, and had even helped him tie up some loose ends with his current work project. September 11th hit him particularly hard. He wasn’t sure why, but it had. He spent almost two weeks afterwards in a fog; he often found himself crying for no specific reason. The week before he was to leave was full of what he referred to as domesticus horribilis. The washer and dryer both went out; beyond repair said Mr. Maytag. His daughter had missed a dismount in gymnastics and bruised her back. Her usual lithe movements would be replaced by an old woman’s shuffle for at least six weeks. The job scheduled for November wouldn’t begin until December, at the earliest, and even then might move out until after the first of the year due to the holidays and all. But beyond all the crises of family and home were the risings within himself. What he months ago described as fisticuffs now felt more like war.
October is a fine and dangerous season in America…It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. It was the only line he remembered from Thomas Merton’s autobiography, but now it seemed fitting. He had left notes for each of his children to find while he was away; stuffed in pillows, Barbie cars, Redwall books. He’d done the same for Kristin, one for each day he'd be gone. They all cried as he drove off, as had he. A blur in his rearview mirror. She had offered herself to him willingly the night before. No tantric mysteries, just good old natural sex, what a cowboy he knew referred to as the Cadillac of simple pleasures.