In the late spring of 1964, a freshly-minted graduate of the Lutheran Seminary in Choctaw, Kansas, I was assigned by the synod to my first pastoral posting, a church in the small town of Abelard, on the North Dakota plains, up near the Canadian border. My car had recently died, and so had my father, conveniently enough, so that I inherited his ’55 Buick Century Riviera coupe, which passed for a small car in those days, since it only had two doors. The car was certainly big enough for me. I tossed my grip and a box of books in the trunk, unbent the aerial and got the radio working, had Don down at Sheffly’s take a look at the tires and the fluid levels, and took to the road. I had plenty of time. The congregation was still celebrating the retirement of the incumbent pastor and weren’t expecting me until after the Fourth of July. I could have sat around my parents’ house for a few weeks, but I was restless, and all my friends were off starting their adult lives in coastal cities, so I decided to zigzag my way northwest in leisurely fashion. I could live on bread and peanut butter and sleep stretched across the back seat, which was more than adequate for the purpose.
It quickly became apparent that the route was monotonous, and that no matter how slowly I drove I would still arrive in Abelard within a week. I should have figured that out in advance, of course, but I really hadn’t traveled much outside my home region and still carried an illustrated map in my head that owed a great deal to the pictures in the books I had read as a child. I imagined that every stretch of road would include a body of water, a mountain range, a forest, a city, and a wayside inn where I would stop for refreshment and meet a cast of colorful characters. None of these things was forthcoming–anywhere, apparently. So I decided to get myself lost. I began turning randomly and suddenly, now pointed south, now west, now north again. After two days of this, and with signage erratic enough that I had no idea where I was, I noticed, rather belatedly, that I was almost out of gas.
I was on the plains, as I had been since the hour of my departure. The road was yardstick straight, the landscape ironing-board flat. Great fields of weather were broadcast far and wide in the sky–a low front over that way, sunshine back there, in front of me a range of tall yellow clouds so massively three-dimensional I could imagine angels milling around atop them and plucking their lyres in the recesses. As soon as I had snapped out of my reverie and realized that what I saw was a thunderhead, the storm was upon me with a vengeance. It was hailing, with stones so large I feared for my windshield. It sounded as if a team of strong men was having at the top of my car with ball-peen hammers. Visibility was close to nil, but up ahead I could make out some buildings. The first one on my right was a decrepit Victorian house that had some kind of shed-like extension on the side, functionally a carport. Without asking anyone’s permission I drove straight in and parked under it.
I sat there for more than an hour, waiting out the storm, suddenly feeling troubled. My heart, for no apparent reason, was racing. I forced myself to get out of the car–I saw that the body sported a few new dents, but they blended right in with the old ones–and noticed that the downpour had eased to a light rain. I got back in and turned the key. Nothing happened. I was out of gas. Cursing myself, but grateful that I was in some kind of settlement, I decided to see if someone would let me siphon a gallon and tell me the way to the nearest service station. The hamlet had decidedly seen livelier days. There were three other old houses, a building with large, filthy windows that was presumably a store, and a wooden church missing the upper half of its steeple. I couldn’t see any vehicles around. I knocked on the door of the house that had sheltered me. No response. The same thing happened at the other houses. The store was clearly shut, although I could make out dim shapes of groceries on the shelves.
The church door was unlocked, and I walked right in. The first thing I noticed was that, although outside the hot, muggy plains summer was already in effect, inside the air was as cool as a cave. The church seemed not to have been used in recent years. There was a thick, fleecy coating of dust on every surface. The hymn books were mildewed. The altar cloth lay in strips, as though flayed. Above, the spindly cross had lost the top nail fixing it to the wall and hung upside down. I left and began systematically walking around the houses, inspecting their outbuildings, but all I managed to find were an ancient panel truck and an even older touring car–I think it was a Pierce-Arrow, although the tag was gone–both of their fuel tanks bone-dry. Finally I decided to see if I could locate a telephone.
I fully expected to find the houses empty, actually, but the first one I tried–the house that I had sheltered next to–was as unlocked as the church, and as cool, and as decayingly furnished. The parlor was a riot of carpets and overstuffed chairs and draperies and knicknack shelves, all of them variously torn, sagging, broken, and coated with greasy layers of dust. The piano appeared intact, but when I experimentally plunked a few keys, the result was a sound like tearing metal. The dining table was set for six, with cut-glass goblets and gilt-edged plates all strung together with spiderwebs. Astonishingly, it appeared that there had been food on the plates when they were abandoned. The only trace left was a scummy residue on each of the plates, along with a scattering of bones. Even the flies had gone. The kitchen, likewise, was filled with signs of activity–bowls, whisks, roasting pans, cutting boards and knives, all out on the counters, all of them dust-covered and as it were mummified. There seemed to be a yellowish pall in the air.
Upstairs, the bedrooms were in comparable condition. The quilts and the horsehair mattresses were so decayed they looked like growths at the base of a tree. I had been trying not to touch anything, but then I tripped on a corner of a throw-rug and fell sprawling across the master bed, which erupted in a shower of dust and what looked like dandelion fuzz, and emitted a smell like rancid mustard. The mattress and bedding completely gave way and I landed, heavily and painfully, on the springs. I would at that point have run out of the house and tried hitchhiking to a gas station–although I was suddenly aware than I hadn’t seen another car in hours–but I was genuinely hurt, my chest lacerated and the wind knocked out of me. And I was dazed, not just by my fall but by all that I had taken in. I was getting a little funny in the head. I found myself thinking that I could see motion out of the corners of my eyes, that I could hear some kind of muffled music.
In fact, both those impressions had the same source. On the wall, or in front of it, at least, was a kind of shroud, a white cloth that was improbably rippling in the unmoving air, and giving off a kind of zizzering sound as if it were nylon with a heavy static charge. I confess I was afraid of it, even though I knew better. Reflexively I groped for the silver cross that hung around my neck, as if I were confronting a vampire. I forced myself to reach for the cloth, to pull it back, but the instant I did so it dissolved into specks in my hand. Then the thing that had been behind it fell forward and hit me in the face. It was a picture, on metal–a tintype–apparently a portrait of a woman. One of her eyes appeared to be floating out of her head, and she was surrounded by a cloud of what looked like…writing, or drawing, or maybe musical scales. It was hard to tell in the dim light. Clutching the picture, for no good reason, I somehow made it out of the house without the staircase or the floorboards caving in under my weight. I don’t remember much of what happened after that. When I regained full consciousness I was handing a five-dollar bill to the pump jockey at a Sinclair station in Heliopolis, Illinois. Over his shoulder I noticed the tear-off calendar in the office. The date was July 7, 1965.