Travelin' Man

By Pam Stek (09MA, 17PHD), 2019 Write Now Winner!

I sat down on a bench and watched the Iowa River roll by for a few minutes before I took out my phone. I didn't want to make the call, but I had no choice.

"Oaknoll Residence, Angie speaking."

"Hey Angie, it's Paul."

"Oh, hi, Paul! What can I do for you?"

"I'm sorry, but I'm going to need to be picked up again."

Short silence. Was that a muted sigh? Angie began speaking again, her cheery voice sounding a little forced now. "That's no problem, Paul. Down by the river, like yesterday? Luke will be there shortly."

This "mind incontinence" thing (that's what my doctor called it) was driving me crazy. It had definitely gotten worse in the past few months, since Jeanine had died. Dr. Roorda said that grief would probably affect my mind-traveling abilities in unpredictable ways, but this was getting out of hand.

Of course, things had been going downhill for about the past ten years. That's why I'd retired from the force at age sixty-seven, even though I didn't really feel ready. The last straw came when I was assisting with a reported burglary in progress. I tried to mind-travel to an address on Governor Street but ended up at the Governor's mansion in Des Moines. When I attempted to get back to Iowa City, I found myself in Atlantic City instead. By that time, I was exhausted and had to wait until the next day to return home. That's when the chief sat me down and said, "It's time to retire." I couldn't argue, but it was hard to leave after forty-five years of service.

I took my eagle feather out of my pocket, rubbing my finger along its soft edges as I thought about the old days. Ever since I was a teenager, I'd possessed the ability to simply imagine a place and I'd be there. My parents sent me to a school for the similarly gifted where instructors taught us how to harness our powers. They also trained us in law enforcement, the career route most mind-travelers take. The school instilled in all of us a great respect for the responsibilities our gift bestowed upon us. To help us remember, at graduation, they presented each of us with an eagle feather, a symbol of flight but also of strength and courage. I treasured that feather and kept it with me always.

The school is where I'd met Jeanine; we'd been married for fifty-five years before she lost her battle with cancer last October. This is the spot, right along the river, where I'd proposed to her all those years ago, and this is where my mind kept bringing me, subconsciously and unbidden, almost every day for the past week or so. Some little thing would remind me of Jeanine and suddenly here I'd be. I couldn't control it. Mind incontinence.

At least I didn't have it as bad as some of the others living in our special wing at Oaknoll, the retired "superheroes" section, as some liked to call it. (I never liked that label. I prefer "differently enabled.") My neighbor Henry, for example, whose special skill involves melting metal with just his vision, destroyed at least two microwaves by concentrating too hard on how to reset the clock. Rex's talent for invisibility, combined with his recent onset of narcolepsy, resulted in his often being left behind after concerts or movies where he'd fallen asleep and lapsed into imperceptibility. However, I'd never struggled this badly until recently, and I'd always believed that if I just practiced a little more, got back into traveling shape, I'd still be able to get around on my own. But now it felt like I'd lost all control of my power, the one thing that had defined me my whole adult life. I couldn't trust myself to mind-travel anymore. If l was no longer the guy who could hurtle through space to help others, what was the point in being here? Who was I? Just an empty husk of my former self, reduced to relying on the Oaknoll van to get from place to place?

I shivered. Luckily, I'd been preparing to go for a walk and was already bundled up before I started thinking about Jeanine, otherwise I'd be freezing out here. It was an unseasonably cold January. I looked at the river. Along the shore, where water stagnated behind jutting rocks or stranded trees, small pockets of ice had formed. A movement near the bank, about thirty yards downstream, caught my eye. A little child, toddling near the river's edge. Up on the walking path, a stroller, straps dangling in front, and a man, his back to the river, engrossed in a conversation on his phone. I watched in horror as the little one stepped onto the thin ice. And then I was there, kneeling on the bank, calling to him in the calmest voice I could muster, "Hey, buddy! Come over here! Would you like to hold the feather?"

The little boy turned, and I saw a look of uncertainty cross his face. But then he smiled. "Paw paw!?" he said, and stumbled toward me. I grabbed his arms and together we rolled back onto the bank. Just then, I heard someone crashing through the crusted snow and brush behind us. "Ian?! My god, Ian!" He crushed the little guy to his chest, then turned to me. "Oh, thank you, you saved him! I took my eyes off him for two seconds!" He kissed his son's cheek. "I can't believe he came to you. He's usually afraid of strangers. With your hat and gray beard, he must have thought you were Grampa."

Just then, my phone rang. Angie's voice sounded slightly annoyed. "Paul, where are you? Luke's in the regular spot, and he says he can't find you."

I smiled into the phone. "Tell Luke thanks anyway, Angie, but I think I can make it back on my own today."


Check out all of the 2019 finalists.

Join our email list
Get the latest news and information for alumni, fans, and friends of the University of Iowa.
Iowa Stories
Iowa Magazine
Explore the Spring 2019 edition of the Iowa Magazine.