Tommy Guptill had once owned a dairy farm, which he’d inherited from his father, and which was about two miles from the town of Amgash, Illinois. This was many years ago now, but at night Tommy still sometimes woke with the fear he had felt the night his dairy farm burned to the ground. The house had burned to the ground as well; the wind had sent sparks onto the house, which was not far from the barns. It had been his fault — he always thought it was his fault — because he had not checked that night on the milking machines to make sure they had been turned off properly, and this is where the fire started. Once it started, it ripped with a fury over the whole place. They lost everything, except for the brass frame to the living room mirror, which he came upon in the rubble the next day, and he left it where it was. A collection was taken up: For a number of weeks his kids went to school in the clothes of their classmates, until he could gather himself and the little money he had; he sold the land to the neighboring farmer, but it did not bring much money in. Then he and his wife, a short pretty woman named Shirley, bought new clothes, and he bought a house as well, Shirley keeping her spirits up admirably as all this was going on. They’d had to buy a house in Amgash, which was a run-down town, and his kids went to school there instead of in Carlisle, where they had been able to go to school before, his farm being just on the line dividing the two towns. Tommy took a job as the janitor in the Amgash school system; the steadiness of the job appealed to him, and he could never go to work on someone else’s farm, he did not have the stomach for that. He was thirty-five years old at the time.
The kids were grown now, with kids of their own who were also grown, and he and Shirley still lived in their small house; she had planted flowers around it, which was unusual in that town. Tommy had worried a good deal about his children at the time of the fire; they had gone from having their home be a place that class trips came to — each year in spring the fifth-grade class from Carlisle would make a day of it, eating their lunches out beside the barns on the wooden tables there, then tromping through the barns watching the men milking the cows, the white foamy stuff going up and over them in the clear plastic pipes — to having to see their father as the man who pushed the broom over the “magic dust” that got tossed over the throw-up of some kid who had been sick in the hallways, Tommy wearing his gray pants and a white shirt that had Tommy stitched on it in red.
Well. They had all lived through it.
This morning Tommy drove slowly to the town of Carlisle for errands; it was a sunny Saturday in May, and his wife’s eighty-second birthday was just a few days away. All around him were open fields, the corn newly planted, and the soybeans too. A number of fields were still brown, as they’d been plowed under for their planting, but mostly there was the high blue sky, with a few white clouds scattered near the horizon. He drove past the sign on the road that led down to the Barton home; it still said SEWING AND ALTERATIONS, even though the woman, Lydia Barton, who did the sewing and alterations had died many years ago. The Barton family had been outcasts, even in a town like Amgash, their extreme poverty and strangeness making this so. The oldest child, a man named Pete, lived alone there now, the middle child was two towns away, and the youngest, Lucy Barton, had fled many years ago, and had ended up living in New York City. Tommy had spent time thinking of Lucy. All those years she had lingered after school, alone in a classroom, from fourth grade right up to her senior year in high school; it had taken her a few years to even look him in the eye.
But now Tommy was driving past the area where his farm had been — these days it was all fields, not a sign of the farm was left — and he thought, as he often thought, about his life back then. It had been a good life, but he did not regret the things that had happened. It was not Tommy’s nature to regret things, and on the night of the fire — in the midst of his galloping fear — he understood that all that mattered in this world were his wife and his children, and he thought that people lived their whole lives not knowing this as sharply and constantly as he did. Privately, he thought of the fire as a sign from God to keep this gift tightly to him. Privately, because he did not want to be thought of as a man who made up excuses for a tragedy; and he did not want anyone — not even his dearly beloved wife — to think he would do this. But he had felt that night, while his wife kept the children over by the road — he had rushed them from the house when he saw that the barn was on fire — as he watched the enormous flames flying into the nighttime sky, then heard the terrible screaming sounds of the cows as they died, he had felt many things, but it was just as the roof of his house crashed in, fell into the house itself, right into their bedrooms and the living room below with all the photos of the children and his parents, as he saw this happen he had felt — undeniably — what he could only think was the presence of God, and he understood why angels had always been portrayed as having wings, because there had been a sensation of that — of a rushing sound, or not even a sound, and then it was as though God, who had no face, but was God, pressed up against him and conveyed to him without words — so briefly, so fleetingly — some message that Tommy understood to be: It’s all right, Tommy. And then Tommy had understood that it was all right. It was beyond his understanding, but it was all right. And it had been. He often thought that his children had become more compassionate as a result of having to go to school with kids who were poor, and not from homes like the one they had first known. He had felt the presence of God since, at times, as though a golden color was very near to him, but he never again felt visited by God as he had felt that night, and he knew too well what people would make of it, and this is why he would keep it to himself until his dying day — the sign from God.
From “Anything Is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout. Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Strout. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.