For most of my life, I’ve been an I-40 man, living on or close to this artery that transects the continent. I was born in the Texas Panhandle and have lived as far east as Charleston, South Carolina and as far west as Las Vegas. And then I wound up in Arizona, where nearly every trip meant climbing Interstate 17 to I-40, which seemed to take me everywhere I needed to go.
I’ve had my fair share of trauma on I-40—snow closures, blinding rain, windstorms, lines of semis moving at a crawl through treacherous weather or highway construction zones, and sleep-deprived rescue missions to help ailing or self-destructive or suicidal relatives. But overall, I-40 means this: going home. Whether from the east or the west, it’s always about going home.
Until about a year and a half ago, Interstate 35 meant the opposite: leaving home.
In 1975, when I was eleven, my mother left my father and took my younger sister and me to live in Temple, Texas, midway between Austin and Waco, on I-35. We lived in a cheap apartment complex that abutted a drive-in movie theatre. From my upstairs window, I could see the two bug-spattered screens and, with the window open, could hear the muffled sound from both films, overlapping to create a surreal and often strangely beautiful music, which, on lonely evenings in the first weeks we lived there, I would listen to carefully, trying to tease apart the conflicting plots, separate and make sense of the dialogue, decoding the double narratives.
It also gave me a way to fill my time. I was not happy there. I had no friends. I didn’t understand why my mother had suddenly uprooted us from our life in Houston, where I loved my school, had a thriving network of hooligans I spent my days and nights with, and where there was always something worth doing—trips to Astroworld or to Oilers or Astros games, or to Galveston, where my father had a boat (a “yacht,” he called it), the Gypsy, and where we would spend the weekends on the Gulf of Mexico, sunbathing, swimming, playing marathon games of canasta while my parents and their friends would drink beer and cocktails and cook the fish we caught in the galley. That was a good life, almost as good as our life in Irving, Texas, at the Old Mill Stream apartments, within earshot of Texas Stadium, where on fall Sundays we could hear the roar of the crowd cheering on the Roger Staubach-led Cowboys to the victories that would lead all the way to the Super Bowl.
Temple, Texas was, by comparison, a wasteland, and I was miserable. A second-rate apartment, no friends, a crappy school where I was perceived as an alien creature, a misfit boy from a broken home, a refugee from the big city, who suddenly appeared in class one day with no warning.
The real reason we were in Temple, which I learned a month or so after we arrived, was that my mother had fallen in love with a small-time golf pro named Tim, who gave lessons at the country club in Killeen, Texas, just west of I-35.
Tim was tall with sand-colored hair and golden eyelashes, a round unwrinkled face and an easy, though insecure smile. He seemed younger than my mother, less refined, though my mother was not even thirty. But she carried herself regally, had been a model, a charm school instructor, the co-president with my father of two companies. And she had two children, had lived through bankruptcy and divorce. She had experience under her belt. By comparison, he was green, too young for her, too young to consider as a stepfather, and I resented him, considered him an intruder, a potential home-wrecker.
My mother was slow to reveal to us the real circumstances for our displaced lives. Tim would come over and spend evenings with us, play spades and Wahoo, and watch Kojak, Petrocelli, and Columbo. But my mother was discreet back then, especially in front of us—no hand-holding or kissing or overnight stays. Once, spying from the bars of the upstairs bannisters, I saw them kiss—passionately, his hands wrapped around her waist, him pleading to stay the night, she resisting, saying that it wouldn’t be right, not yet, not now. Then he was gone, and she came upstairs, and the three of us—my sister, me, and my mother—fell asleep on her queen-sized bed, watching Johnny Carson.
As summer approached, we spent more time at the country club in Killeen, where Tim gave the Army base officers and their wives golf lessons. When he wasn’t busy, he would instruct me on the putting green and allow me to shag the balls he’d drive on the range and pay me in one dollar bills, which would come in handy later because the primary source of entertainment at the country club was Liar’s Poker, betting on the serial numbers on the bills. It was a bluffing game, and the country clubbers let me play with them. It reminded me of happier times in Dallas and Houston and the Texas Panhandle. I had been allowed to play in the family poker games—and often won.
At the country club—away from the dreary apartment and the shabby drive-in and Temple elementary school—I was suddenly happy. I began to settle into this life. I’d had enough moves already in my childhood, enough displacement, to be resilient, and I congratulated myself on my ability to adapt to these new circumstances. Sure, I missed my former life, missed my father, missed my friends and Astroworld and Galveston and the Gypsy. But there were worse lives for a kid than hanging out at a country club, stuffing myself with hamburgers and hot dogs, drinking virgin daiquiris, learning how to play golf, and winning cash from grown-ups with my audacious bluffs.
Then, just as my sister and I had grown accustomed to this new place, made a few friends in the apartment complex, and were actually looking forward to the new school year in Temple, where I would join the football team and find my tribe, my father showed up with a U-Haul trailer, embraced my mother, and transported us back to Houston, and into a different (though identical) apartment in the Afton Village complex where we had lived before my mother carried us away.
Our life in Temple, on I-35, was over—and never, to my recollection, spoken of again. I remember no showdowns between my father and Tim, or between my parents, no reference to the circumstances of our departure, no goodbyes. We just resumed our lives in Houston, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. My friends welcomed me back. I rejoined my football team. And life was grand, until, within a year’s time, my parents divorced again, this time permanently.
Fast forward three dozen years.
In 2013, I moved back to the I-35 corridor, much farther north, to Ames, Iowa, where my wife and I took faculty positions at Iowa State University. Though the circumstances for this move were radically different, I sometimes felt—and still feel—that same sense of dislocation that I experienced as a boy, living in Temple, Texas, wondering how I got here, how long I would stay, and if someone I loved and missed would arrive on my doorstep with a moving truck and take me back to the West, to Prescott, Arizona, where I lived for twenty years, a home I left too suddenly, without a proper goodbye.
I didn’t feel like I-35 was bringing me home until my first Christmas in Iowa.
In early December, during finals week, I received a distress call from my aunt, telling me that my uncle—a man I’d grown up with, a man only nine years my senior, the best man at my wedding, the closest thing I have to a brother—was in the hospital, on a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit, barely alive, not much time remaining.
“Call Kenny,” Mike had mouthed to my aunt during one of his lucid moments.
I dropped my school work, tossed clothes in a bag, and headed out of Ames, south on I-35, dropped down the center of the country, through Des Moines, Kansas City, Wichita, down through the windswept desolation of the plains to Oklahoma City, and then to I-40 West, that old familiar highway that landed me in Amarillo. Bleary-eyed but stoked on caffeine and five-hour energy drinks, I stumbled into Intensive Care to find Mike splayed unconscious on the hospital bed, a thousand tubes sprouting from his arms and chest, the ventilator snaking down his throat, breathing for him, rattling his bloated body with each artificial inhale and exhale.
Marianne—my aunt, a woman I’d gone to high school with, a good friend over the years—sat beside him, sleep-deprived, calm but shaken. Several years ago, Mike had been diagnosed with lung cancer. After surgeries and treatments, the cancer was in remission, but his immune system was in tatters, his lungs fragile, making him susceptible to pneumonia. He’d already been hospitalized twice in the past few months, including a lengthy stay in the ICU during Thanksgiving.
This third time was dire. The doctors did not sugarcoat his chances. He’d gotten worse, not better, and had barely been conscious most of the time. When he was awake, he was furious about his situation, enraged about having the ventilator shoved down his throat again. He’d already told Marianne that he never wanted to be in the hospital again, would rather die than have to be put through the misery and the degradation to which he believed hospitals routinely subjected their patients.
Mike’s two older sons and his twenty-something daughters visited between their work shifts. But he didn’t want them there, was ashamed to have them see him like this, didn’t want their last images of their father to be this wrecked body. Nobody knew what lay in store, but I encouraged Marianne to get some sleep and return to work, and I would stay with Mike and update her regularly with text messages, and contact her if the doctors visited.
After a week, Mike regained consciousness, and soon after, they removed the ventilator, but they scraped his throat in the process, and he struggled to talk and swallow. If he made it out alive—and his prognosis had improved considerably—there would still be weeks, perhaps longer, of physical therapy. He was, understandably, depressed. When he was awake, we watched television—Sports Center, as well as NFL Live and Pardon the Interruption, which he was addicted to, especially during football season. Our obsessive love of the Dallas Cowboys had been one of the ways we remained tethered to each other over the years, and the season was moving toward its own potentially catastrophic conclusion, with the Cowboys still in the hunt for a division title, despite an historically bad defense, debilitating injuries, and an ailing Tony Romo.
When Mike grew weary of the television, I offered to read him a novel. I’d brought along some books I thought he might like, and talked him into Deadwood, by Pete Dexter, a rich and frequently funny Western set in the Badlands, a novel that had inspired the creators of the HBO series. Mike enjoyed it at first, and it was a relief to hang out with Wild Bill Hickok and the drunken, foul-mouthed Calamity Jane and the cantankerous Al Swearingin as they tried to civilize their makeshift settlement during the gold rush. I would take breaks to help Mike sip water or wipe his face, or to spoon-feed him ice cream, or to step out of the room so the nurses could remove his bedpan, change his sheets, and flip him from side to side to prevent bedsores.
I told Marianne and Mike that I could stay as long as they needed me—at least until the spring term began in mid-January. Longer if absolutely necessary. I was not, however, eager to stay. My wife and three youngest children were in Iowa, preparing for our first Christmas there; my oldest son was flying in from Cambridge, where he had just finished his first semester of law school. I longed to be with them, longed to be away from the antiseptic stench of the hospital. But the first of many snowstorms hit Amarillo and the whole lower- and upper-Midwestern corridor, with more bad weather promised, so it was doubtful I could get back to Ames for the holidays, even if I was no longer needed here.
By the fifteenth day, Mike was more himself, though irritable and moody and often enraged about his predicament. One minute, he’d thank me for being there to take care of him and relieve Marianne and his kids. Once, in fact, while I washed his face with a cool rag and combed his hair, he said, in the voice of a child, “You’re a good daddy, Kenny.” But then a half-hour later, he was furious with me, accusing me of keeping Marianne away from him, fearing that the doctors had given fatal news, and that my kindness was my way of mollifying him until he died.
About two-thirds through Deadwood, Mike told me he didn’t want me to read anymore. There was a mentally damaged character in the novel that the other characters referred to as a “soft-brain,” and the repeated use of that word had begun to terrify Mike, made him think too much about his own mental and physical deterioration. “I don’t want to be a soft-brain,” he said, his eyes glistening. “I can’t stand hearing it.”
So we stopped. But Mike grew strong enough that there was talk of him moving to a regular hospital room, where he could begin physical therapy. As soon as he could eat by himself, they’d transfer him. Mike told Marianne that he wanted me to leave once he was in a regular room; he said he’d had enough of my generosity.
“It’s time for you to go,” he said. I didn’t take it personally.
By December 23rd, after eighteen days in ICU, they cleared his move to the physical therapy wing, and once we settled him in, I said my goodbyes.
There aren’t many times in your life when you have the opportunity to sit vigil by a brother’s side and help nurse him back from death. It had been a gift for me, as well as him, but now it was time to leave, and when a narrow window of reasonable weather opened on the morning of Christmas Eve, I hit the highway, the snow flurries pattering my windshield, headed east on I-40, then turned north on I-35 at Oklahoma City, and began the long journey up the vein of middle America. I crossed the Kansas border, and then from Kansas to Missouri, from Missouri into Iowa, a legitimate snowstorm on the horizon, the beginning of the Polar Vortex that crippled the Midwest that winter. But I had a straight shot, and this final section of I-35 would take me, just in time for Christmas, home.