They were heading north on I-95. It was a route they’d traveled hundreds, probably thousands of times connecting the east-west roads in the area they lived. And they always looked at the sky because it was normally so blue and the clouds looked, as Melinda, his wife, said, like powder puffs.
But today they were different. Today they were varying shades of gray and the light played in and through them in ways he’d rarely seen before.
Charles Hawthorne loved the effects of light on almost anything. He loved those artists’ paintings where the light took on the key element.
He loved lightning in the night sky and the design of colors on a lake created by the diagonal of the setting sun.
He loved the shadows created by trees and the black lace of the bare branches in winter as the sun turned its cold light on them.
Yet, today, as they drove north on I-95, he watched the light play with the clouds as they moved slowly through the sky, forming and reforming and morphing through the various shades of gray.
He was anxious to get home, anxious to get to his library and his books on Impressionism and, in particular, reproductions of Claude Monet’s paintings.
While Melinda made a fresh pot of coffee Charles turned the pages and studied the four surviving, of the original series of twelve, paintings of the Saint-Lazare Station.
That was it, he thought. That’s what the clouds had reminded him of, the light playing through the clouds of smoke belching from the locomotives.
He continued turning pages, pages filled with more railway paintings, every one another study of the light playing on its subject.
He loved Monet’s work. He loved the Impressionists.
And he loved Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer because of the way Rembrandt had used the light as if it were letting us read Aristotle’s mind as he contemplated the bust. He remembered racing to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as soon as the purchase was announced; he stood in front of it for so long that people started to look at him peculiarly.
But today was different. Something was different about the way the light was shifting. It was almost eerie.
“Coffee’s ready,” Melinda called from the kitchen.
“Be there in a minute.”
But it wasn’t going to be a minute and he turned back to Monet to study page after page of reproductions.
He turned back to the Saint-Lazare Station paintings, then to the Haystacks, one titled effects of snows, morning from 1890 and another end of the summer, morning 1891.
And the Cathedral of Rouen in the twilight and full sun and in the evening from 1894.
He read the captions of how light was the principal element and Monet’s purpose was to capture the changing effects of the light by painting the same subject over and over in different light at different times of the day.
As he turned the pages Melinda walked in with two mugs of coffee.
“I figured you’d get lost in your books so I thought I’d meet you half way.”
“Look at this,” Charles almost shouted. “I knew I’d seen a sky like today,” he said, pointing to a reproduction of Monet’s La pointe de la Heve ἀ marée basse from 1865.
Melinda looked over her husband’s shoulder while he described every detail of the colors Monet used to depict the sky and the clouds, the ocean and the mountains, the man walking with a cane, others on horseback, the horse-drawn carriage and the sailboat in the distance.
“Isn’t it amazing?” Charles asked as he ended his discourse, almost from exhaustion.
“I absolutely agree,” Melinda stated sincerely, not only because she did agree, but also because she knew that it meant so much to Charles. “It’s hard to believe that anyone could create all of that with only some paint and a brush.”
Charles felt that there was nothing to add, and they remained fixed in place, suspended in Monet’s time, for several more minutes before he closed the book and they went into the living room to drink their now luke-warm coffee.
Two days later Charles awoke with a sense of foreboding, like some great disaster was going to happen and he didn’t know when or where.
How any of this tied in with the Monet day, as he now called it, of two days earlier he had no idea.
He thought back to that day. The clouds weren’t just shifting meteorological formations and metamorphosing shades of gray, they were ominous or so they seemed to him.
He was getting worried. What was happening to him? Was he becoming paranoid? What was going on?
He wanted to discuss it with Melinda, but didn’t know how.
Was he going crazy or becoming clairvoyant? He had no answers and he not only wanted answers, he needed answers. The problem was that he had no idea how to find them.
He got up, washed and dressed and went to the kitchen.
Melinda was already there making bacon and eggs and she had put water to boil for Charles to make the coffee in the Melitta filter, which he preferred over the Mr. Coffee machine.
Charles automatically lowered the bread into the toaster then turned to the coffee, grinding the beans for each pot and carefully pouring the water so every ground was completely wet as it dripped through the filter.
Once again he thought of discussing his apprehensions with Melinda, but didn’t know how to bring it up and, besides, they had a full day of errands, and then he had promised her dinner at her favorite sushi buffet.
As usual Charles had written an itinerary and route list for the day so they’d try to get everything done.
“I thought we’d stop at the library to return the DVD on our way,” he said. The plan included both of them getting their glasses adjusted and Melinda wanted to look for a new little black dress, so how many stops that would take depended on when she found the perfect dress which also determined how many other things on the list got done.
It had rained earlier and the rain had done a good job of cleaning the air.
Today was a very different day from the one two days earlier. The sky was a pale blue and the clouds filmy and transparent as the sun shone through them.
Driving north on I-95 they again looked at the sky. It was crystal clear and the clouds were as white as paper. There was a gentle breeze which moved the clouds quickly through the sky, forming them into shapes then reforming and reforming them again.
If he hadn’t been driving and watching the road for other cars he would have simply stared at the sky and watched.
“The clouds are beautiful today,” Melinda suddenly stated.
Charles simply smiled his reply. Driving gave him a chance to think as he saw Melinda enjoying the show above them.
He thought back to when the clouds had been those varying shades of gray and had felt so ominous. And he thought about the sense of foreboding which he’d awakened with a few hours earlier.
He couldn’t figure any of it out. He tried to sweep it away like one of the shapes of the clouds and replace it with the sense of pleasure that today’s perfect sky produced and enjoy nature’s show and watching Melinda enjoying it.
And yet that sense of disquiet remained. An undercurrent, almost a sub-text to his very being, lingering and slightly out of reach.
They continued to drive north on I-95 and Charles continued thinking – analyzing not only his feelings, but trying to look at his world, the world from every perspective like Monet studied his world of light and shadow at Giverny.
But there was nothing tangible. The world was a mess politically, socially and economically, but it had been for years. The Middle East turmoil had risen in intensity, but everyone had almost learned to live with the news reports of violence. People had become almost inured to the daily maelstrom, relieved by the false sense of security that it couldn’t happen here. Things like that only happen over there.
And yet the feeling lingered.
Charles tried to let the glorious sky and the success of his wife finding the “perfect dress” obviate his sense of… He really couldn’t even put a name to the feeling – was it disaster?
He continued trying as they checked item after item off their To Do list.
They stumbled into the Crepe Café and had a delightful late lunch of crepes filled with French Brie, bacon and fire roasted apples, but even the smoothness of the Brie and the sweetness of the apples did nothing to ameliorate his anxiety.
“It was a lovely day,” Charles said, as he and Melinda got ready for bed.
Her new dress was hanging on a hook on her closet door, and she admired it once again before responding, almost as if its perfection could wash away what she was seeing in her husband’s eyes and could do nothing about. And she hoped he’d see it too.
As they got into bed and turned off the light she watched Charles stare at the ceiling until they both drifted off to sleep not knowing that they’d be awakened by a phone call from a friend at a quarter to nine the following morning – September 11, 2001.