From Mr. Hellerman's Vacation
Mr. Hellerman stepped away from the fire and cocked his head back and followed the smoke column up until it vanished suddenly. He stared at the sky, which he had taken for granted. It had been a long time, years maybe, since he'd looked up. He often looked out at the horizon to read the clouds for rain or strong winds, but not directly above him. He knew this because of the creak that stiffened his neck when he bent it that way, and the unfamiliar weight of his head. It felt unnatural, but of course it was the most natural thing in the world, to look up at the sky above your own backyard at night. Above the house and barn and sheds. Above the tractors and the combine and the huller. Above the wheelbarrows and hoes. He took another swig of whiskey from his glass. He'd heard that the sky looked different in the twin cities, you couldn't see many stars, a few, but not the Big Dipper or Little Dipper or the other thing he had looked at when he was a boy, the lion with a belt.
He looked up again and saw clouds of whiteness coming down; he could see the whiteness about fifty feet up, flakes descending en masse, their first snowstorm of the year. For a moment, in his drunkenness, he thought that the stars were falling, the heavens were falling down on him. Fear in his gut, he laughed at himself. But disasters do happen, crops wiped out, the farmer's dread. His grandfather had told stories of the locust plagues of 1879, sheets of grasshoppers dropped in a ten-mile radius and stripped the alfalfa and cornfields, the vegetable gardens, even the leaves off oak and maple trees. Lawrence's grandfather had opened the door the morning after the locusts arrived, the same door Lawrence opened every morning to put on his boots and go out to the barn. The grass around the barn was gone, bare dirt with only a twig or two of stubble sticking up. The fields for miles were bare, the most amazing nothingness he'd ever seen. Miles and miles of nothing so you could see the contours of the naked hills and meadows. The ground was a loamy black in some fields and had a reddish hue in others. He could see clear over to the Tool farm and beyond that even to Adley creek on the other side of the road.
--Wiped out, and a shot of plum brandy down his grandfather's throat.
In the backyard, Mr. Hellerman opened his mouth and snow wet the middle of his tongue. A few flakes melted on his forehead and on his closed eyelids.
Mrs. Hellerman pushed his side. --Lawrence, what's gotten into you. She handed him a shoe and squatted to rub his frozen foot.
When she stood he looked down into her face, shrouded in the fur-lined hood of her parka, a woman with fifty-two quarts of tomatoes under her fingernails, not discontent, leaning on him the way she had leaned at the altar, toward him with her veil slung over her head and her lips, rouged red out of the ordinary, tipping until he was forced to catch them with his own.
--I don't know what's gotten in me, Beverly. I don't feel so good. He put his hand on her cheek and she turned away --You'll have some hangover-- left him, not out of any particular meanness or pride, but in the practical politeness and confusion that had settled around the Hellermans, who knew when, like a small blizzard or winter fog. Mr. Hellerman sometimes thought they were born in the fog, there was something between him and the world, places beyond his farm were often shaded, as if he were trying to see forward from a gone time, or from a dark hole, the bottom of a well.