The bellman talks to me on the sidewalk in front of the hotel as I wait for the airport shuttle to arrive. He is from a small village in Hungary, where there are no jobs except in hard labor, inherited from fathers and uncles. He came to America to work for a large hotel chain, hoping to see a bit of the world and send money home to his family. He has seen Telluride, Colorado, with its spectacular landscape and harsh winters, and now he has seen Louisville, Kentucky, a city he says is "too quiet, too boring." He is homesick for the bakeries and cafs, the churches, the languages, the museums and sights of his homeland.
We say goodbye, and I ride to the airport to board a flight for Houston, en route to Galveston, where I will visit my mother and sisters before returning to Colorado. The flight, on a narrow, compact ExpressJet, is calm and scenic, a smooth trajectory through billowing mountains of cumulus clouds. When we approach Houston's Intercontinental Airport, the captain informs us that the airport is backed up and we will be in a holding pattern until we receive instructions to land.
Our jet continues due south and begins to make wide circles over the Gulf of Mexico. Across an expanse of sky, we can see other jets taking the same path as ours. The skies are blue, and below us, at dusk, a few boats glitter in the late afternoon sun. But when our plane flies parallel to the shore and my window seat is facing north, I can see the enormous black cloud, pulsing with lightning like a beating heart, settled over what must be Houston.
After 45 minutes, the captain informs us that air traffic control has said we can land, and he turns the plane north. Below, I can see Galveston Island, my destination. The attendant tells us to check our seatbelts, as "it could get a little bumpy."
We fly through wispy areas of high clouds and catch only a glimpse of the concrete and steel spectacle of Houston before we enter the storm. We are plunged into darkness -- wet navy blue and silver -- and the plane begins to vibrate and buck. I am surrounded by a bunch of college kids returning to Oregon from a track meet in Louisville. They yip and holler, "Cool! Wow! Look at that!" Balls of lightning roll off the wings of our plane and great daggers pierce the sky around us.
I have spent the past week with writers, talking about dark places in a metaphorical sense. Now I am in one as real and alive as any horror of the soul.
We land with a jerk and are told we will have to sit on the tarmac for a while. The airport is taking too many lightning strikes, and it's unsafe to board and exit planes. Rain falls in sheets, forming a lake around the wheels of our plane. Lightning booms around us. Seasoned passengers pull out their cell phones and inform their loved ones in Portland, Los Angeles, Austin and elsewhere that they are unavoidably delayed. The college kids are titillated. Business travelers are merely annoyed.
An hour later, once we have finally de-planed, I rent a car and pick it up from a massive garage with a metal roof, where the rain is so loud the attendant with the keys can't hear me and I can't hear him. The drive through the flooded streets of Houston is harrowing. The dome of the sky brightens with lightning, then mile-long horizontal bolts streak across it. Massive booms shake the car.
Finally, I drive out of the rain and eventually reach Galveston and my mother's tiny shotgun house, warmly lit from within. I kiss my sleeping sister and climb into a narrow iron bed I've slept in hundreds of times.
In the middle of the night, I fly awake when a sonic boom shakes the house -- thunder, mighty and loud. The storm has moved south through the night. I lie back down and pull the stiff white sheets up to my face and inhale the scent of sunshine and grass. My mother has put fresh sheets, dried on the clothesline, on the bed.
I turn over and fall asleep to the sound of thunder, lightning flashing outside the shuttered windows, content in the darkness of home.