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The Precious Ordinary

When a young writer reached out to Kent Haruf, Colorado's most celebrated novelist generously offered his time—despite having recently learned he had a fatal illness. In his final months, the author spoke to Chris Outcalt about reading, writing, and the meaning of life.

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Maggie Jones drove out to the McPherons’ on a cold Saturday afternoon. Seventeen miles southeast of Holt. Beside the blacktop there were patches of snow in the fallow fields, drifts and scallops wind-hardened in the ditches. Black baldy cattle were spread out in the corn stubble, all pointed out of the wind with their heads down, eating steadily. When she turned off onto the gravel road small birds flew up from the roadside in gusts and blew away in the wind. Along the fenceline the snow was brilliant under the sun. Plainsong

Cathy Haruf Returns from the snow-covered backyard of her Salida home carrying a small box of papers. It’s late in the morning on Wednesday, February 25, the day after what would have been her late husband’s 72nd birthday. She sits across from me in an old brown rocking chair in the corner of the living room and rests the box on her lap. The chair creaks as it sways, and Cathy settles into place. On the opposite side of the room, displayed on a cabinet, there is a framed picture of Kent.

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After a quiet moment, Cathy begins to sort through the contents of the box. There are handwritten letters, a spiral-bound journal, and a stack of manila papers. The sheets make up the manuscript of her husband’s final novel, Our Souls at Night, which he worked on until the day he died, November 30, 2014. The pages are filled mostly with single blocks of typed text, and there are pencil marks and crossed-out words and passages and notes in the margins. For months Cathy has been mailing boxes of these papers to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where they will be preserved and catalogued alongside work by the likes of Shakespeare, Galileo, Henry David Thoreau, and Jack London. This is one of the last boxes she will send.

Kent Haruf is widely considered Colorado’s finest novelist and one of America’s most important contemporary literary voices. Critics have written that his sentences “have the elegance of Hemingway’s early work” and that he “may be the most muted master in American fiction.” His books have been translated into more than a half-dozen languages. His third novel, Plainsong, was a best-seller and was nominated for a National Book Award in 1999, one of the highest honors in American letters. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts has adapted three of Kent’s books for the stage, most recently his fifth novel, Benediction, which in many ways foreshadowed his own death. And an award-winning director has already expressed interest in purchasing the film rights to Our Souls at Night, published last month.

In the bright living room, Cathy hands me one of the manila sheets: page 16 of the first draft of Kent’s last book. She then places the box on the floor in front of us, and we look through Kent’s papers together. A few minutes later, Cathy asks if I’d like to see the shed behind the house where Kent wrote Our Souls at Night and his previous two novels, Eventide and Benediction. With a pencil, she scribbles a three-digit sequence, the code for the combination lock on the shed, on a scrap of paper. Instead of accompanying me outside, Cathy hands me the paper and suggests, without hesitation, that I go alone.

The structure is just beyond the fenceline: a small brown shed with a fresh blanket of snow clinging to the roof. It looks like the kind of thing you’d pick up at Home Depot. This was Kent’s sanctuary, the place where he daydreamed into existence a world that showed in all its simplicity that life is anything but plain. I walk around to the front, dial the combination, remove the padlock, and open the door.

Even now there are not many trees here, although people in towns like Holt have full-grown trees that were planted by early residents sixty and seventy years ago in backyards and along the streets—elm and evergreen and cottonwood and ash, and every once in a while a stunted maple that somebody stuck in the ground with more hope for it than real experience of this area would ever have allowed. The Tie That Binds

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The drive from Denver to Salida—from the busy city highways to the quiet small-town streets tucked between 14,000-foot peaks and near a calm stretch of the Arkansas River—takes three hours, winding, and climbing, and dipping through the mountains along U.S. 285. I made the trip multiple times last summer to speak with Kent, and on each occasion we visited for hours in his home.

When I first reached out to Kent, I didn’t know he was working on a new book or that he had seen very few visitors during the previous months. I’d recently read Plainsong and was moved by the rhythm and soulfulness of the story and of his writing, the way one might feel a connection to a beautiful piece of music or the brushstrokes of a brilliant painter. I felt compelled to reach out to the man behind the novel. I wanted to talk with him—and to listen. A publicist at Random House connected Kent and me via email; we exchanged a few messages, and he agreed to meet with me at his house in Salida on June 23. Cathy later told me that she was a bit surprised when Kent said there was “a young man coming down from Denver to visit.”

I arrived at the Harufs’ home around 4:30 p.m. that afternoon in June. Kent answered the door. He looked more frail than in the pictures on his book jackets, and there were rubber tubes tucked behind his ears and up into his nostrils. The tubing trailed behind him several dozen feet back through the entryway and across the kitchen floor and into the living room, until they disappeared under a closet door. Kent invited me in. We sat in the living room. He was winded from walking to the front door and back to his chair, the old rocker. We spoke for a long time, and like Kent’s prose, his voice was soft and measured.

On my drive through the mountains several hours earlier, I listened to an interview with New Yorker writer Peter Hessler, who has spent years reporting from China. In the interview, Hessler explained that one of his strategies had always been to leave the big cities and travel to small towns. “Everything is more obvious in a smaller place,” Hessler said in the interview. “It stands out more.” Hessler’s comments made me think of Kent’s novels.

kent-haruf-books
Photo by Jon Rose

All of Kent’s books are set on Colorado’s Eastern Plains in the fictional town of Holt, which he created and then painstakingly brought to life on the page. Beyond the occasional trip to Denver or the mountains, his characters—Edith Goodnough, Victoria Roubideaux, the McPheron brothers, Dad Lewis—rarely stray far from the edges of town. Kent spent much of his childhood on the High Plains. He was born in the steel-mill town of Pueblo in the winter of 1943. Kent’s father was a Methodist preacher, and the family moved often—Kent was an infant when they packed up and left Pueblo and settled on the plains east of Denver. The Haruf family spent the next 12 years in Wray, Holyoke, and Yuma, little towns amid expansive country.

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As a kid, Kent didn’t think much about becoming a writer. In his early years, he remembers being “more or less a happy kid.” He also says that during that time, he “learned to live completely inwardly,” a sentiment owed to the fact that he was born with a cleft lip. Kent’s parents were too poor to afford treatment alone, but local churches helped raise money so the Harufs could send their newborn to Children’s Hospital in Denver. Kent remained at the hospital for about a month while doctors did what they could to repair his lip. The surgeon planned to do more work later, but when he died in a plane crash, Kent’s parents viewed it as a sign from God to let it be.

For more than 15 years, from the time he was 12 until he neared 30, Kent felt an impulse to conceal his face behind his hand, to hide what he considered an embarrassing imperfection. But his thinking changed over time. Later in life, he came to believe the deformity was a gift that had taught him to be more aware of the world around him and of the feelings of others. “Which are good things,” Kent has said, “if you are trying to learn to write fiction about characters you care about and love.” In his 30s, Kent grew a mustache to cover his lip; he kept it for the rest of his life.

Listening to Hessler’s interview on that summer day, I wondered if Kent felt about his fiction the way Hessler did about his journalism; that the quiet setting of the plains somehow amplified the emotions and interactions of his characters. “I feel that exactly,” Kent told me. It worked just perfectly, he said, to set his novels on the stark landscape of the plains because there was so little to obfuscate the story. Later, he told me, “I love driving around through the plains at night, when you see those yard lights scattered around in the country. It’s so beautiful to me. And yet so lonesome.… There’s a kind of tension between those two feelings, and I love that.”

Just once they took another boy with them to the vacant house and the room where it had happened. They wanted to see it again themselves, to walk in it and feel what that would feel like and what it might be to show it to somebody else, and afterward they were sorry they had ever wanted to know or do any of that at all.
Plainsong

west-of-last-chance
An image from West Of Last Chance , a photo book by Kent Haruf and his friend Peter Brown. Photo courtesy of Peter Brown

On that June afternoon when Kent and I first met, he told me he’d spent part of the morning reading William Faulkner. Kent deeply admired Faulkner’s work, including The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying—but there was one story in particular he held above the others, a short novel titled The Bear. Though he’d read the book at least 10 times, Kent told me he’d once again returned to The Bear because it was one of the first books he fell in love with, and thus he felt a connection to the story and a sense of joy while reading it. “That short novel,” he said, “was absolutely crucial for me in making up my mind for what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”

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Kent asked me if I’d read The Bear. I hadn’t and confessed that I’d not read much Faulkner at all. The next day I ordered the book and read it as soon as it arrived. The story, which Faulkner wrote later in his career, is set primarily in Mississippi in the late 1800s. One of the novel’s central storylines is based around a relationship between a young white boy and an old mixed-race mentor, who teaches the adolescent to respect the wilderness.

Reading The Bear, I was struck by the contrast between the sound of a Faulkner sentence and that of one written by Kent. Faulkner’s sentences are long and dense, language layered on top of language, whereas Kent’s are more often simple and precise. I thought it was interesting Kent had cited Faulkner as his favorite author. The longer I considered it, though, I thought perhaps I was focused on the wrong aspect of Faulkner’s writing. Maybe the reason Kent felt drawn to Faulkner had less to do with the aesthetics of a sentence or paragraph and rather the connection forged in the way the writing made Kent feel. Perhaps his love of Faulkner grew more from the man’s ability to convey emotion than the way he used commas and periods.

Many of Kent’s thoughts and feelings about literature first began to develop during his time in college. Kent attended high school in Cañon City. After graduation, he enrolled at Nebraska Wesleyan University, a small Methodist school in Lincoln, Nebraska, which he chose partly because of his father’s background as a minister. He intended to study biology, but after taking one science course, he reconsidered. He enrolled in a Masterpieces of Literature class and during the next two years fell in love with authors such as Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.

The small English department at Nebraska Wesleyan was a perfect fit for Kent. The professors were passionate about stories and less concerned with literary theory. That sort of scholarly thinking about writing never suited Kent—he didn’t want to figure out the symbolism; he wanted to think about how the story made him feel.

Many years after he first read Faulkner, Kent was on a book tour for his third novel, Plainsong, which had become something of an overnight success. Kent shared with me a story about the time he did a reading at Square Books, a famous bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford also happens to be William Faulkner’s hometown. That night, after the reading, Kent went out with friends and got a little drunk and decided to visit the author’s grave. He lay down amid the earth and stone of the grave site, his body close to Faulkner’s remains. Cathy took a picture of him lying there, and before Kent left that night he poured a bit of whiskey onto the tombstone.

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They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning. The McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond. Old men approaching an old house at the end of summer.
Eventide

Though Kent had learned to love and respect literature during his undergraduate days, he spent the next several years of his life struggling to learn how to write his own fiction. He graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan in 1965 and left campus feeling, as he told me, “absolutely unprepared to make a living, except if they were to pay me to read.” It was around that time that he first attempted to compose short pieces of fiction. Those initial stories were complete failures, he told me, “pitiful, imitating, reductive little things.” Kent volunteered for the Peace Corps, which at that time was only a few years old, and was sent to a village in Turkey. During the days, he taught English to middle school students, and in the evenings he wrote. “That was the first time I’d ever been out of the country,” Kent said. “I had hardly ever been out of Colorado. It was a good experience for me but of little value to the Turks.”

After two years overseas, Kent applied to graduate school at the University of Kansas. He was accepted, and he and his girlfriend, Virginia Koon, who would later become his first wife, moved to Lawrence, Kansas. Almost immediately Kent felt out of place. The English professors discussed literature in ways that didn’t make sense to him—literary theory and symbols. It was the opposite of what had sparked his love of Faulkner and Hemingway during his undergraduate days. Kent quit in the middle of the second semester.

It was the spring of 1968, and the country was tangled in the Vietnam War. No longer eligible for a student deferment, Kent was drafted, though from the moment he received the notice he had no intention of going to war or killing anyone. “I remember Cassius Clay said, ‘I ain’t got nothing against them Cong,’ ” Kent told me. “That was about my feeling.” He applied for—and was granted—status as a conscientious objector.

Instead of fighting, Kent spent the next two years caring for life: He worked as an orderly at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital near Denver and later at an orphanage in Helena, Montana, where he and Virginia lived in a single room and had their first child. He was still writing consistently and submitted short pieces of fiction to magazines such as Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly. They were all rejected.

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Feeling desperate, Kent applied to the University of Iowa’s prestigious writer’s workshop. (Alums of the program include esteemed fiction writers John Irving and Ann Patchett.) The program had turned Kent down two years earlier. This time, without knowing if he’d been accepted, Kent moved his family hundreds of miles in the middle of winter to an old country farmhouse east of campus and found a job as a janitor. He stopped by the admissions office so they knew he was in town. That spring, Kent was accepted to the workshop.

He wrote a third of a novel while he was in Iowa and later finished the book. (For the first time, he set part of the story in Holt County.) Harper & Row considered publishing the novel but eventually passed. During the next several years, Kent began a career teaching English: first at a small high school on the Colorado plains, later at his alma mater, Nebraska Wesleyan, and finally at Southern Illinois University. Kent and Virginia had two more children; their marriage eventually ended in divorce.

While he was teaching, Kent started on another novel—the book that would finally earn him recognition. “When I finished that novel, I wrote John Irving to ask if he would connect me with his agent,” Kent wrote in an essay published after his death. “He said he had sent 50 writers to his agent and he hadn’t taken any of them, but maybe he’d take me. And he did: I got a telegram (there were still telegrams back then) and he said he was impressed by the book and wanted to represent it. That was a great day for me. The book was The Tie That Binds.” The novel was published in the fall of 1984. Kent was 41 years old.

He continued to write and teach, and his second novel, Where You Once Belonged, about the rise and fall of a high school football star and his impact on Holt, was published six years later. The following year, in 1991, though he’d never considered going to one before, Kent attended his 30th high school reunion. The gathering was in the basement of a Cañon City restaurant. Kent walked down the stairs and one of the first people he saw was his old friend and high school classmate Cathy. Though they hadn’t spoken in years, they hugged each other right away, and in that moment fell in love. “Cathy says there are no accidents,” Kent told me. “I’m ready to accept her explanation.”

kent-cathy-haruf
Kent and Cathy Haruf, both raised in Colorado, out to dinner in 2009. Photo courtesy of Cathy Haruf

Cathy moved to Illinois, where Kent was teaching writing and English, and they later married. Having both grown up in Colorado, Kent and Cathy dreamed of returning to the state. After Plainsong found success in 1999, they left their jobs and together purchased a few acres of land 10 miles west of Salida, halfway up Monarch Pass, with a view of Mt. Shavano. There is a little town there now called Maysville, but back then Kent and Cathy were the only ones around. For two summers, they camped out in a tent, traveling back and forth from a nearby campground to collect water from a pump. They hiked often and fished and drove around exploring different places. Eventually, they had a cabin built on the land.

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After 12 years of living simply in the hills above town, Kent and Cathy sold the land, moved to Salida, and settled into a small home a few minutes west of downtown on H Street.

He sat and drank the beer and held his wife’s hand sitting out on the front porch. So the truth was he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was. Benediction

When he was writing a novel, Kent would sit at his desk each morning from about 9:30 to noon. He would begin by writing in his journal and reading a few pages of one of his favorite authors—Faulkner, Hemingway, or Anton Chekhov. He liked having the cadence of those sentences in his mind when he wrote. Then he would compose drafts on an old typewriter. (He tried writing on a computer once but didn’t like it.) Cathy could hear the keystrokes from just outside the house: click, click, click. Kent would dedicate each morning to a single scene, and he would write the first draft of each scene blind, his eyes closed and a stocking cap pulled low so all that was visible were the backs of his eyelids, something of a window through which he viewed the town of Holt and its people.

One such scene is the opening of Kent’s fifth novel, Benediction. In the first chapter, the main character, Dad Lewis, receives a grim medical diagnosis: There is cancer in his lungs. A Washington Post critic wrote, “Benediction seems designed to catch the sound of those fleeting good moments.” Benediction is the story of a dying old man, and as the tale unfolds, Kent’s prose gives life to the process of preparing for death.

Kent once described the book this way: “This story is not about suspense. We know from the beginning that Dad Lewis is going to die. The difficulty is trying to portray this man’s death in a way that is not monotonous or tedious, and yet focuses on the meaning he has as he’s closing in on death.” Benediction was published in February 2013, nearly nine years after his last novel, Eventide. Almost exactly a year later, Kent received his own unexpected and startlingly similar diagnosis.

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Kent told me about his medical condition that first day I met him in June. We’d spoken for more than an hour, and eventually the conversation veered in such a way that I asked him if he’d been working on anything new. He said that he had a few ideas, but that he hadn’t done much with them because he’d been too sick.

A doctor had delivered the news four months earlier: Kent had an interstitial lung disease for which there was no cure. One day soon the scarring on the tissue around his lungs would cause his organs to malfunction for good and he would suffocate. The doctor did not know when that day would come. Tomorrow. Or the day after. Or many days after that. It was a death sentence without a date.

His doctor prescribed steroids to help improve his breathing. Nothing more could be done. The news was unexpected and frightening, a shock to both him and Cathy. Kent told me he was trying to prepare himself for death. He said he’d been meditating more and reading spiritual texts. He wanted to have what he thought of as a good death. To be conscious until the end, to be present; to be loving until the last moment, to be unafraid.

With whatever time he had, he said he wanted to take pleasure in anything he could. He wanted to find enjoyment in simple, everyday things: the progress of the tulips in the backyard garden. The way a glass of lemonade looks. Those things were more important now. He didn’t want to be distracted or waste time. There wasn’t any time to waste. He said that’s the way you’re supposed to live life all the time: to find enjoyment in what he described as the precious ordinary.

Before I left that day, Kent and I made plans to speak again soon. On my way out of town, I bought a six-pack of beer. Before driving out of the valley and winding back through the mountains to Denver, I pulled over at a lookout with a view of Mt. Princeton. I opened a beer, took a sip, and, with Kent’s words still in my mind, watched the sky change colors as the sun set beyond the massive peak.

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Aren’t you afraid of death?
Not like I was. I’ve come to believe in some kind of afterlife. A return to our true selves, a spirit self. We’re just in this physical body till we go back to spirit.
I don’t know if I believe that, Addie said. Maybe you’re right. I hope you are.
Our Souls At Night

Last summer, Kent and I planned to go out to dinner one evening. When I arrived in Salida he apologized and said that he was not feeling well enough to leave the house, so Cathy prepared a small snack, and Kent and I talked for almost two hours.

He told me he’d spent the morning reading spiritual books with Cathy and meditating. “What I do think I know and believe—feel as much as believe, I guess—is that we return to some spiritual form,” he said. “I so love the physical world; I love being in a physical realm…and being with Cathy, and knowing people, all this stuff…I’m not ready to leave those things, but it’s going to happen. So I’m trying to get ready for that, without being maudlin or morose or depressed about it. That wouldn’t serve any purpose.”

Weeks later, Kent and I traded emails about getting together in late August or September, and when summer began to transition to fall I reached out to see how he was feeling. I asked if the scenery around Salida was particularly beautiful this time of year and told him that I hoped to soon drive through the mountains to see the changing leaves. I heard nothing for weeks. I began to worry. Then, almost two months later, at 6:01 p.m. on Sunday, November 23, an email from Kent arrived. Though I didn’t know it then, it was the last time I would hear from him.

Dear Chris,
I’m very slow in responding to your message but you’ve been on my mind….

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Earlier that month, I’d mailed Kent a copy of a piece I had written—one we discussed during one of our conversations. He wrote that he’d read the story and enjoyed it. Then he went on to say that he had been working on a project of his own.

On a personal note, I can tell you that I have written a new novel this summer. A short one. I began writing about the 1st of May and by the 15th of June I had a complete first draft. Then I began to rework it and Cathy has printed it into the computer about five times. And now my editor at Knopf has edited it and I’ve returned it to him and will get a copyedit this week, and galleys in January. …Its title is: Our Souls at Night. I feel pretty good about it and I feel especially good about even being able to do it. In many ways it gave me an added reason to stay alive. Cathy and I had a great time with it but I hadn’t told anybody because I didn’t know if I could actually finish it.

I hope this finds you well and in good spirits.

Warmest best wishes,
Kent

Seven days later, Kent died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of Sunday, November 30. I read the news in a short piece posted late that evening by the Washington Post, and I cried.

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Kent-Haruf-Shed
Kent Haruf stands in front of his writing shed. Photo courtesy of Cathy Haruf

One step past the doorway of Kent Haruf’s writing shed and everything feels close. The back wall is less than eight feet away, and I can almost reach out and touch the walls on either side of me. The interior walls are draped with mismatched bedsheets, which are tacked to the beams of the structure, concealing a thick layer of insulation. Some of the sheets are pale blue and others are the color of lima beans.

Just to the left of the entryway, there is a small bookcase overflowing with old books. Many of the book jackets have faded and the corners are worn and there are distinct creases along the spines. The top shelf is taken up almost entirely by stories written by Faulkner, and a third of the way down, I notice a short story collection that includes The Bear. Kent’s desk spans most of the length of the back wall; it’s a light wooden desk with three drawers. There is a lamp in the far corner, and a brown suede chair. A large bull skull hangs from a nail to the left of the desk. Cathy told me Kent had hung the skull in his workspace as a reminder to not write bullshit.

Though my time with Kent was brief, I believe it was a gift. When I first met him I was focused on learning about his writing, but I realize now he was speaking more about life—and that the line between the two is not much of a line at all. There were no mechanical tricks to what Kent accomplished in his books; his writing was rooted in less tangible things like feelings and emotions. And beyond that, it was simply hard work. It seemed to me the precision in Kent’s novels in many ways reflected the mindful way he lived his life. Kent once told me, “What I’m trying to do…is to suggest the value and the preciousness of ordinary life. Most of us don’t see it very clearly. Maybe we do better than I think, but I don’t think we do. I think our life passes in front of us without us being cognizant of it—of the dearness of it.”

Before walking back inside, I linger in Kent’s shed for one final moment. The late-morning sun cuts through a small rectangular window above his desk on the back wall. A white V-neck undershirt hangs over the window; still, a bright light spills beyond the boundaries of the window frame and into the room. Then I close the door and snap the lock into place.

Cathy tells me her friends have asked her if it has been difficult to mail Kent’s papers to a library hundreds of miles away, to let go of this piece of her husband. She said there have been times at night, when everything is quiet, that she feels an overwhelming sense of loss. But when it comes to these manuscripts, the culmination of her husband’s life’s work, she chooses to see things differently. She’d rather these artifacts be somewhere she knows they’ll be taken care of; when they were left out in Kent’s shed, sometimes one of the cats would sleep on them.

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For five months, Cathy was the only person who knew about Kent’s new novel. He told her he was going to write a book about the two of them—a couple of old people talking all the time. She said Kent would return from his shed each morning pleased. “His writing was always very satisfying on days when it went smoothly,” Cathy said, “but he would never have said it was fun. He just had the best time with this one.”

Sometime during the writing process, still not having told anyone else he was working on the book, Kent thought he would surprise his editor, Gary Fisketjon, with a draft. Fisketjon had been with Kent since Plainsong and had become a good friend. The day Kent was ready, Cathy drafted an email that read, “Gary, here’s a little surprise for you.” She attached the draft of the book and hit send.

Our Souls at Night is a love story. In the book’s first chapter, an older woman who has lost her husband wanders over to her neighbor’s home in Holt, a man who has lost his wife. Thus begins a relationship, and the characters, Addie Moore and Louis Waters, together find enjoyment in the little things— the precious ordinary. Cathy later told me Kent really loved the last line of the book. And I’ve thought about the significance of that: The last sentence Kent Haruf wrote was one that he loved. “Dear, is it cold there tonight?”

On the drive home after talking with Cathy, I stopped at the same Mt. Princeton lookout I visited the first time I met Kent. Pausing here on my way back from Salida had become a routine. On this day, the early afternoon sun was up in the sky, high above the mountain. As I sat on top of a picnic table, I watched the sun trace the ridgeline, revealing contours that moments earlier had been hidden in the shadows.

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