I recently found out that the first newspaper I worked at, The Orlando Sentinel, has archived its articles online going all the way back to 1985, which means that the internets are now graced by the first piece of writing I sold for cash: a short story called “Heading Home,” which appeared in the August 6, 1995 isssue of the paper’s weekly Florida magazine.
I had submitted this story to the magazine’s annual fiction competition – despite the fact that I worked at the paper in the composing room – and a couple weeks later, I received a letter from the associate editor explaining that while the story wasn’t among the top placers, she wanted to buy it for $100 and publish it in another issue.
I remember my hands actually shaking as I was reading this note – I had sold a piece of writing. (As an aside: The top prize for the fiction contest had been $100 and publication of the winning story. So, really, I was coming out on equal footing as the winner, and arguably better off than the second- and third-placers.)
It wasn’t until a year later that I was paid to write for a second time – a feature article assigned by one of the section editors I worked with regularly. That eventually led to me freelancing sports coverage – mostly high school games, with the occasional professional softball, minor league baseball and MLB spring training assignment.
This blog entry could have maybe been saved until the actual 15th anniversary of the date, but I didn’t feel like it – and anyway, I’m sure this story was already around at this point in 1995, since this version of “Heading Home” is actually a total late-night, fevered reworking of a story I had written and then shoved in a folder or an envelope or a desk drawer.
Of course, the electronically archived edition of the story doesn’t include the impressive photo illustration the talented Red Huber designed to sit alongside the text, and it’s missing several bits of punctuation – eaten, I’m guessing, by the gremlins that live in the spaces between editorial system changeovers.
Still, rediscovering it online got me to dig up my copy of the issue and scan it in here. Having done an awful lot of writing since the time this story was published, I recognize “Heading Home” has its weaknesses. It’s definitely the voice of a John Booth at a different place in his life, but there are also pieces in here I’m still proud to have written, and the gorgeous framed edition Jim Carchidi put together as a gift still hangs in my library.
Below, then, are the scans from that Florida magazine – click to enlarge them for easier reading – but if you absolutely must read the fudged-text-no-picture version, it’s here.
What free comics, you ask? Look, here’s the whole list of possibilities – and not every shop is going to have them all – but any day is a good day to visit this place anyway. I’ve seen a lot of stores carrying old toys, but never anyplace that has such a ridiculously cool load of “holy-crap-I-forgot-they-even-MADE-this” stuff in addition to the high-profile toy lines like Star Wars and G.I. Joe and Transformers and Sea Wee- um, never mind. Here’s a peek, though it barely hints at the wonders within.
There may or may not be some cool movie and TV vehicles on hand, depending on the weather, but I can tell you this much: Darth Vader and a stormtrooper lackey or two are likely to show, and I’ll be there helping nostalgify things with copies of Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek.
You want I should draw you a map? Here –
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
Previously: Chapter 1 – Return
Chapter 2 – Another December
On a Saturday in December when my wife and daughter were in Florida for a weeklong visit, I got up early, packed a change of clothes in a duffel bag, and put two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and six Cokes in a cooler on the passenger seat of my car.
I was headed to Michigan for an overnight visit with Alex, but I was leaving early to go visit Kallie’s grave in Ridgeland and then make another trip to the bridge.
Even though I’d been married for nearly four years, had a three-year old little girl, and felt a million miles and breaths away from that cold night at Five Mile Bridge seven years earlier, I’d never been able to give it up.
I’d taken my wife there one afternoon the summer we were married. The day Kallie had died, she had been the first person I’d told. She remains the only person I’ve ever taken to my holy place outside Bryan.
When we stepped onto the bridge in the sunshine, I stood quietly and looked to the west, and my wife began to cry.
And we were given a train of our own, roaring from the plains and bringing the smell of hot June grass from Illinois.
On this trip though, I was alone again, and it was another December.
I swung my car around the great loop of the entrance ramp to the Ohio Turnpike, and a glare struck the corner of my left eye as I headed west. Not even one o’clock yet, but the low winter sun shone through my side window and made it feel like late afternoon. I took my toll ticket from the woman in the booth and looked at it for a moment, then drove on.
Exit 2 lay waiting across Ohio, and the highway began to unwind.
I reached over to the cooler I had sitting on the passenger seat and pulled out a Coke. I popped it open, took a swallow, and wedged the can between the edge of my seat and the emergency brake.
I also got out one of the two sandwiches I’d packed, and took a healthy bite – I’d slathered the peanut butter thickly on one slice of soft wheat bread, and barely painted a coat of grape jelly on the other. As I shifted the sandwich to my other hand and had another swig of Coke, I took in the pale clear sky and the road ahead.
I figured four hours to Bryan. Plenty of time to think about why I was going to the cemetery, to the bridge, and wonder what exactly I was hoping to feel.
When I called Five Mile Bridge my holy place, I meant it. Even before Kallie died, our night at the bridge had formed itself into a monolithic shrine in my memory, a deep imprint on my consciousness of a place I’d return to in a thousand odd moments of recollection.
Even the afternoon I took my wife there, though, it was difficult to share what it had done to me, years before, and why it still affected me.
I stayed up until midnight the night before this trip, going through the cigar box of old letters where I keep two things Kallie sent me: a letter from before she headed off for a semester internship at Disney World during our sophomore year of college, and a card she sent me after a visit to Florida in the fall of 1993 – the last time I saw her.
The doorway of the Original Buffalo Wing and Sub Co., on North Orange Blossom Trail, near Cinderlane Parkway, was the last place I ever saw Kallie Tabitha Greenburke alive. That’s where I was working, and she and I had hung out the day before, I think. I’d written her a letter to be opened when she was on the plane back to Ohio.
She came into the store, and I gave her the letter, and she ordered a scrambled-egg sub. (That sticks with me in particular because she left half of it for me to eat, figuring it wouldn’t keep on the plane to Toledo.)
That night, I sat on the cement back porch of my apartment as the sun set and it turned dark, and I watched the planes head north from the airport, wondering if she was reading my letter.
On the day she visited and we hung out in downtown Orlando, we took off our shoes and waded in the fountain in front of the blue-mirrored Signature Bank building.
“I wonder if there’s any place we can go up and see the city, like the top of a building or something,” I said as we walked the warm sidewalk in bare feet, our shoes hooked on our fingertips.”
I craned my head back and squinted into the high sun.
“Well,” she mused, “it’s not downtown, but…come on.” And she was slipping her sandals back on and heading toward the parking lot underneath the interstate.
Before we got in the car, she took a small camera from the backseat and set it on the trunk, pointing it across the street and clicking a button.
“I think I’ve got this right – go!”
She grabbed my hand and darted across the road to a green iron streetlight, whirled me around by my waist so we bookshelved the lamppost, and grinned back towards the car.
After a second or two, we crossed the street again, more carefully, and she examined the camera. “Got it,” she smiled. “It took a picture, anyway. We’ll see how it comes out.”
As we drove to the Marriott World Center Hotel down in Lake Buena Vista, the sky began to darken with summer storm clouds.
We took a gold and glass elevator to the topmost floor of the hotel, and the doors opened onto a short hallway – here, at the pinnacle, there were only four doors to what I assumed were suites.
Windows at each end of the hallway looked over central Florida. To the northeast, the clouds were rolling over downtown Orlando, and we could see lightning strikes. Palm trees thirty stories below waved their fronds in the storm-whipping wind. The city towers stood against the cloudbank like castles against a mountain range.
Out the other window, we looked over green expanses of water and palmettos. “There’s Little Lake Bryan,” she pointed. “It’s over by the apartments I stayed in when I worked at Disney.”
In shorts and damp sandals, we surveyed our kingdom while raindrops spattered heavily against the tinted glass.
We drove back to my apartment through a downpour.
By the time we got there, the afternoon storm had passed, and the sun was setting. The air was cool, moist, and comfortable.
We lingered on the back patio for a few minutes, watching the sun go down and looking at the weedy creek that wound along the lawn’s edge.
Because I needed some groceries, when Kallie left, she drove me to the corner across from Publix. It was less than a hundred yards from my front door, but she offered me the ride, and I took it.
That’s when, after I got out of her car and ducked my head into her passenger side window to say goodbye, she said, “I love you, Joshua Kendall.”
What would have happened if, right then, I had leaned inside that car and kissed her?
“I love you, too, Kallie.”
It was the only thing I could say.
Should there have been more?
As she drove off, I jogged across the street and the Publix parking lot. I barely resisted the urge to put my arms out like a kid trying to fly.
That night, the Florida air was humid, and it clung to me with the smoke from the mosquito repellent coil and the candle I lit on my back porch. I propped my feet up on the iron railing and saw the city lights glowing foggily a few miles off.
“Yesterday,” I wrote to her, “you and I said ‘I Love You.’ It was the first time we have ever spoken those words, and yet I feel we’ve been saying them for a long, long time.”
Our friendship thrived on the great truths of such cheese. That line from our trip to the bridge, when I told her “I truly appreciate who you are?” I meant every word of it, and she knew it, but we still laughed our asses off many times after that, when every trivial thing became a window to the soul. “I see you’ve got your tan socks on today,” she’d say, nodding solemnly. “I truly appreciate who you are.”
After she got home, she sent me a card in reply to the note I’d written her in Orlando. It had a picture on the front of two small, shadowy figures on a hill beneath a pair of heart-shaped clouds.
“I was taking a road trip this weekend,” she’d written inside in blue ink, “and I needed music to keep the trip short…I found ‘Silent Fields on a Moonless Night’ to keep me company.”
She was talking about a tape I’d made for her of music that reminded me of our friendship: trains and stars and blazing youth.
“Your letter was so beautiful,” she continued. “I cried, I laughed, I needed it, I loved it! Thank you.”
While packing for my trip to visit Alex and return to Five Mile Bridge, I’d read that card, signed “Love, Kallie,” for the thousandth time, and I’d dug through my old journals looking for anything I’d written about that day in Orlando.
Nothing. Nothing at all from the last day I ever spent in her company, the last day I’d ever held her hand, seen her eyes gleam, heard her laugh. Nothing. Absolute insanity.
I contented myself with another trip through the old notebook I’d scribbled in the day after my first visit to Bryan, and the bridge, and Christmas Manor.
And, as I had sometimes before, when I fell asleep, I asked Kallie to visit.
It took me a minute when I woke up in the morning to remember that she had.
Some dreams, you look back and wonder how you didn’t recognize them as dreams, since they were so weird or out of line with reality.
This one maybe lacked that “so real” feeling because it felt so right, everything in place, clicking.
I was throwing a party in the dream. It was a party for Kallie, but since she was dead, I couldn’t tell anyone else that, so I just called it a party. Lots of friends and family dancing, laughing.
And then Kallie was there, eyes shining.
As the party began to break up, and she had to go, we hugged. She was small and strong, and did not let go easily. When we pulled back, from our embrace, she kissed me.
I have kept to myself the wonderings, alone and tired in the middle of the night sometimes, about whether or not Kallie was ever in love with me.
The clarity of that dream’s meaning fogged when I awoke. I know, though, I know, that in my sleep I felt that, once upon a time, she did love me, and I loved her, and like Houseman’s dying runner, that time would be forever young and remembered.
The last album REM recorded before Kallie died was “Automatic for the People.”
Driving west on Interstate 80 on a sunny winter Ohio day, I listened to it, the songs both triggering and echoing my thoughts.
Drive. Try Not to Breathe. Sweetness Follows. Man on the Moon. Nightswimming. Find the River. Everybody Hurts.
I somehow thought that maybe because of that dream, I didn’t have to go to Bryan with expectations of a vision or an inspiration or a sign, since I found my answer in my sleep.
And I could still feel her arms.
Even though it was chilly outside, the car started to get warm, with the sun coming in on my arms and face, so I cracked my window a little.
The breeze whistled in with a faint, and somehow clean smell of cold, muddy fields from along the highway, and I let my eyes run over the miles of plow-combed soil dotted with clumps of sticky snow and the bare trees and the lengths of wire fence.
I passed a weathered, green farm house that sat on a road which ended in a circle of gravel and a steel barricade a few yards from the edge of the turnpike. There was a dark, leaning barn behind the house, and I saw a rusted red tractor inside.
The sky was a pale blue blaze, cloudless.
I don’t even remember when I met Kallie the first time. I don’t remember the auditions for Second Shepherd, or the casting callbacks, or the first rehearsal.
My memories of Kallie begin one night after probably our third or fourth rehearsal, when I was walking back to Rodgers Quad from University Hall. It was raining: a slow, misting drizzle that ran cold drops down the back of my neck. I had my shoulders hunched and was watching the sidewalk.
Dimly, I heard footsteps skittering hurriedly behind me, and I scooted to the side a bit.
“Josh! Wait up!”
I turned to let her catch up. It was Kallie, the girl playing the angel in the play. She gave a light sniffle of raindrops and her breath was coming in short puffs of steam.
“Hey,” I mustered a grin. I was surprised at the fact that she’d run to catch me, but I tried to act casual.
“You live in Rodgers?” she nodded towards the building ahead. “Me too. I just wanted to tell you how much I love your acting. You’re really good.”
I just remember being stunned. “Thanks,” I managed with an embarrassed shrug. While I’d enjoyed the few times I’d been onstage at the North Canton Playhouse, and then during my freshman year at BG, I’d never really felt like I fit in with theater people. I hated show tunes, I couldn’t sing, and I didn’t have real acting aspirations – I just liked to pretend now and then, I guess.
We finished our walk to the dorm.
Somewhere in the cracks of that sidewalk between Kohl Hall and Rodgers Quad are infinitesimal crumbs of tennis shoe soles from our short walk that night. Trapped, maybe, alongside a speck of dust grabbed up by a long-evaporated raindrop that slid down her hair while she smiled at me.
There are such fingerprints everywhere.
Things are more than what they are.
I thought of Five Mile Bridge and how much more than a simple construct of steel and wood it had become for me, for Kallie, for everyone who’d touched it, knelt there, hollered there, screamed there, lived there, smiled there, changed there and left there.
There’s a quantum physics theory or postulate or something where they’ve proven that if you separate an electron from an atom, no matter how far it is eventually removed, if you spin it the other way, the other electrons still orbiting that atom will also change their spin, no matter where they are.
I have a piece of Five Mile Bridge about an inch and a half long. I pried it loose from one of the railings when my wife and I visited, and I keep it in a small box on a bookshelf. I think, though, like those electrons, it’s as connected with the rest of the bridge as it ever was.
Kallie and I had “Second Shepherd’s” rehearsal three nights a week that semester we met, so we’d sometimes stop by the campus snack bar and split an order of garlic cheese bread or onion rings.
Her dorm room was on the same floor as mine, around the corner and down the hall a ways, and we’d often run into each other between classes or in the evenings.
One night, I remember we both happened to head down to the orange-painted study lounge, with its low tables, stuffed chairs, and study carrels.
Since we were the only ones there, we started talking instead of studying, in part because I had my Psychology book with me for some reading on perception.
There was a page about how the human mind focuses on the eyes and mouth of a person’s face for definition and orientation. By way of example, there were upside-down portraits altered so that the eyes and mouths were upright. They looked odd, sure, but when you turned the book over so that the heads were upright, the inverted eyes and mouths looked even more freakish.
In a flash, Kallie was off to her room for some scissors and tape, and we were busy snipping mug shots of the Student Government President and the baseball coach out of that day’s BG News that someone had left on a chair, cutting out their eyes and mouths, flipping them over, and cracking ourselves up at the results.
It was also in that study lounge that Kallie taught me to speak Horse Latin – the language of inserting an “ob” syllable before vowel sounds.
It had started, of course, one night over Pig Latin, and then I taught her a warped form of it that my friends and I had used in high school, tossing in an extra few sounds – pig into igpay, and then further into igomopay.
She loved it.
“Coban yobou obundoberstoband mobe nobow?” she asked, tilting her head, a grin slipping sideways.
Caught me off guard, but fortunately, I was able to speak like Bill Cosby’s Mushmouth.
“Yebes,” I replied. “Whebat ebis thebat?”
“Hoborse Lobatobin,” and then she explained it.
It only followed naturally that we combine Horse Latin with my extended Pig Latin into a rubbery, flapping language and christened ourselves Oboshomojay and Oballobieomokay.
Incredibly impractical and unnecessary. A staple of our friendship.
One Tuesday (“The Wonder Years” was on, that’s how I remember the day) we made ourselves an Italian dinner of spaghetti and garlic bread with two hot-plates and a small toaster oven from her room. We’d even gotten someone to buy us a carafe of cheap red wine to go with it. It was great, cooking noodles and sauce and bread on my improvised desktop kitchen, having wine in pilfered cafeteria glasses while the water boiled and the sauce burbled and the bread toasted.
When we were done eating, and about half the wine was gone, we both thought, “Hm. That wine hasn’t really given us a buzz yet. We should have someone buy us some beer.” So we went upstairs to see a guy who’d been my neighbor the semester before and the three of us walked across the street to a convenience store where he bought us a six-pack of Bud Light in stubby brown bottles.
By the time Kallie and I walked back to her room, the first half of the carafe of wine had hit us both. We polished off the rest of it and then each popped a beer open because we felt like we had to, since we’d gone to all the trouble of buying it. I remember sitting side by side on her bunk, leaning against the wall, our legs sticking straight out in front of us, each with a barely-touched bottle of beer in our hands, and talking until about three in the morning.
Out of nowhere, she called me Simon.
“Huh?” I looked at her. “Simon?”
She sort of shook her head and blinked her eyes, like she was waking up, and said, “I have no idea why I called you that, except right at that second, you reminded me of that little boy in the cartoons, Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings.”
Coming from Kallie, that sort of thing made perfect sense.
Sometime that semester, she gave me a plastic ring from a gumball machine, with a tiny shock of yellow hair and a pair of paper eyeballs stuck on it. She called it Fuzzy.
The spiral notebook with my writing from the day after she took me to Five Mile Bridge has a green cover, worn soft at the edges. There’s a torn piece of masking tape on it, bearing faded pencil writing: Obuzzobyomofay obovesomolay obouomoyay!! It’s underlined, twice, and there’s a smiley face drawn beneath it.
When I run my finger over the tape and feel the pencil point indentations, the gibberish reminds me that Fuzzy loves me.
With exclamation points.
My freshman year, before I’d met Kallie, was the first time I stood close to a passing train, and I tried so hard in my journal to wrestle it into something that someone could read and know and feel.
After my visit to Five Mile Bridge, I tried again.
I wrote about the visit in that green spiral notebook, but that was a two a.m., hurry-God-please-don’t-let-me-forget-a-nanosecond rush of howl and sigh and adrenaline.
The next night, I fell asleep trying to recreate the train, the bridge, and her eyes in my mind.
After I soaked it into my blood for a week or so, one night while my roommate was out, I shut off the lights and sat down at my desk by the window, where a bright pink-orange glow came in from the floodlight on the outside of the building.
Tree branches clicked in the wind, and over an hour or two, I wrote a poem I called “For Kallie: A Night at Five Mile Bridge.”
The next morning, on my way to the cafeteria, I stopped by her room. I was pretty sure she’d be at class already, so I slid the poem in an envelope with her name on it under the door.
Late that afternoon, I was alone in my room again and there was a quick, soft knock at the door.
When I opened it, Kallie was standing there, shaking, and her eyes were wet.
Before I could even say hello, her arms were around my neck, her sweet hair like spring, her body quaking, and in one of her hands was single sheet of paper, folded in thirds, with my poem typed on it.
In that shivering moment, the greatest of heartbreaks: the moment of joy and power and wonder and the certain knowledge that it will soon be gone.
Years later, I sold a short story about a magic baseball daydream to a magazine in Florida for a hundred dollars. The day I read the acceptance letter for that story, my hands were nervous and jittering.
That night, tired but unable to sleep, I wrote a one-page note to Ray Bradbury about my first story sale, and the time Kallie’s arms clutched me tightly because of a poem. It was truly a babbling late-night idiot letter.
I still have the note Bradbury sent in reply two weeks later.
“These cats,” he had typed on a sheet with Halloween cats at the top, “are Bradbury cats, celebrating Josh Kendall and his first story sale, and the night his girl friend” – the space was his, by knowledge or accident, I don’t know, but it fit perfectly – “flung her arms around him and wept with the beauty of his poem.”
Below, in blue ballpoint, was signed “Ray Bradbury,” and the date.
That letter will yellow and crumble, years distant. I open it sometimes, unfold the page, imagine that typewriter dust from the great writer’s fingernails settled in the weave of the paper, quietly crackling static electricity.
I envisioned a fantastic, vast spiderweb of connections in my life, and picked out a tiny strand to consider: from Kallie to a train to a poem to a story and a half-sleepwritten note that sprang from all four.
Without Five Mile Bridge, I have no letter from Bradbury.
One of a million leaps of logic and sense that happen every second of every day of every life.
Click here for information on ordering the book in paperback or electronic editions through Amazon or Lulu.
This isn’t the Marvel Star Wars ad I was looking for – it’s better.
I was actually flipping through the few old Star Wars comics I have looking for this Heroes World advertisement, but instead – ohhhhh, man, I found this one:
From the horror-movie title font to the Epic Flying Landspeeder to the “Hell-With-The-Fourth-Wing-It’ll-Mess-Up-The-Composition” X-Wing Fighter, I challenge you to find a better collective piece of vintage Star Wars advertising art.
And just in case you missed them, please make note of Mighty Walrusman Snaggletooth (Totally Ripped Abs Edition!) –
and the Duck-Footed R5-D4, which presaged the Bloom County Banana Jr. aesthetic by a year or two!
I was 19 years old when I started really getting into Pink Floyd: The Wall.
Oh, I remember seeing high-school kids in the early 1980s wearing black T-shirts with that screaming face image, and hearing that “We don’t need no education” chorus from “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” all over the place, and I remember the trippy bizarre dirty-seeming cartoon images from when the movie came out, but I wasn’t even in my teens yet, so it remained beyond my interest.
In high school, my friend Adam introduced me to Roger Waters’ Radio K.A.O.S. , and I went zonkers for it, probably in part because of its WarGames kind of sensibility, partly because I liked that there was a story here, and partly because there are songs there that still give me that excellent gut-thrum can’t-help-but-sing-along-badly buzz. Adam also got me listening to Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, which I did like an awful lot (we went to see that tour’s stop at the old Richfield Coliseum in August 1988), but it never led me to Waters-era Floyd music.
Then I spent July of 1990 in Germany, when Waters put on his famous The Wall: Live in Berlin show. I had known the concert was going to happen during my visit, but I also remembered that my host at the time hadn’t much cared for the Momentary Lapse tape I had in my car when we had dated the previous year, so I didn’t even consider asking whether she would get us tickets. Of course, I vividly remember seeing news footage on a DJH television while we were on a bike trip, and she mentioned that some friends were at the concert, and if I had said something beforehand, of course she would have loved to have gone, not necessarily for the music, but because of the symbolic ending of the East-West divide.
When I went back to Bowling Green that fall, things were made strange for starters because I had a randomly-assigned roommate, with whom I didn’t get along too well. We just had very different personalities and priorities. Couple that with the fact that circumstances of all sorts had some of my closest friends leaving my everyday life, and I felt more than a little out-of-alignment from time to time.
Feeling particularly withdrawn one day, I walked a mile-and-three-quarters to the local K-Mart and bought myself a CD-playing boom box, and lugged the thing in its bulky, awkward cardboard box a mile-and-three-quarters back to our dorm. Then I walked down to the music store we frequented and bought two albums: Alphaville’s Forever Young and Pink Floyd: The Wall. (Yes, yes: See clearly the tormented young writer, hunched at his Brother WP-55, the yellow type on its tiny black screen reflected in his sweating brow, a half-empty bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill at his elbow.) And as with K.A.O.S., I focused particularly on the writing and the story of the album as much as the music itself.
(Funny thing: A few days later, my parents asked me if I’d want a stereo with a CD player for Christmas, so I wound up returning my boom box to K-Mart. I think I got someone to give me a ride this time.)
Second semester, January 1990, I moved into a single room by luck of the draw, whereupon I did this:
I’m still kind of proud of the effort and the results: It’s black electrical tape on the room’s white wall, and what I used to fill the Empty Spaces was white sheets of art paper cut to fit and rubbed with blue crayon. Adam gave me the movie art poster before he moved, and maybe the “Live in Berlin” Rolling Stone magazine ad, too – I can’t remember. I do know, however, that they are strategically placed to cover a large patch of semi-peeling paint which I was hesitant to stick the tape to for fear I would make it worse when the time came for its removal. The brick at left center is another sheet of art paper on which I invited friends to scrawl graffiti, and where I’d write down quotes I liked, too. And the giant green Radio K.A.O.S. subway poster filled out the wall perfectly.
(Yes, those ARE “rabbit ears” on my black-and-white TV, and yes THAT IS a stuffed Bill the Cat. Ack, pththththbbbt.)
One Friday or Saturday night that semester, my friend Ivan and I had rented This Is Spinal Tap, which neither of us had seen. That same night, the old movie theatre downtown – the Cla-Zel -was hosting a one night showing of The Wall – and we hadn’t seen that, either, so we figured on a cool double-feature.
We got through about half of Spinal Tap when we realized we had to leave to catch The Wall, so we figured we’d come back and watch the ending later, no big deal.
So we go see The Wall and it just flattens us. Just depresses the hell out of everything because, well, it’s not the happiest of movies, folks, and though I still think it’s powerful stuff, it’s not the sort of film you build a Happy Fun Time Night around. Neither one of us felt much like watching the end of Spinal Tap that night.
For a long time, I wouldn’t watch The Wall on television, simply because that experience had been so mind-numbing on the big screen, in the dark, with the booming, echoing sound and everything. I finally did watch it recently on a VH-1 airing, and not only did the commercial interruptions screw up the slow descent into madness, they utterly butchered some pretty key segments of the movie.
Toward the end of the year, of course, I deconstructed my dorm project in the only appropriate way: I took the phone off the hook, cranked my stereo system, and listened to The Wall straight through. Through the first CD, I removed the “empty space” papers and the posters and used more electrical tape to “complete” the wall on my wall. And naturally, at the end, I grabbed that tape in handfuls and ripped it all down. It was fun.
My infatuation with The Wall probably started to fade not long after that school year ended, and it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve had the desire to listen to the album all the way through. If I want to play pop-psych on myself, I’d say that enough genuinely unpleasant stuff started happening in my life that putting myself through a music-induced wringer wasn’t something I needed or wanted anymore.
And though I was initially excited to hear about Waters’ announcement that he’s taking the whole concept/concert on the road again this year, I’m now kind of ambivalent about it for a couple reasons. For starters, I’m sure ticket prices will be jacked beyond belief; and as for the whole “Here’s my chance to finally see that show I missed” thrill, I already did that a couple years ago with The Police.
More than that, though, I’m just not in a place anymore where The Wall connects with me the way it used to, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Saturday’s road trip with Adam to the Pittsburgh Comicon made for a long day that left me both physically exhausted and mentally worn out from a kind of roller-coaster day.
I’ll get the low point out of the way first: I didn’t sell a single copy of Collect All 21, which is a first since I’ve started actively attending conventions and promoting the book, and this really bummed me out, especially since this was the biggest convention I’ve been a part of so far. I absolutely love doing readings and going to cons anyway, so I was really excited at JediCon WV last August when I met Christine from the Science Fiction Alliance of Pittsburgh and she invited me to give a presentation at this spring’s show. And as the date drew nearer and I saw the scope of Star Wars-related guests and the impressive slate of comic creators who’d be on hand, I just got even more psyched.
I also have to admit it was neat seeing my name in the program book and a description of the panel along with a logo of the book’s title. And I was glad to see Christine again and meet some people from the group who I’d only met online.
About a dozen people showed up for my reading – I spent a good 10 minutes before 1 p.m. talking Star Wars with a very nice couple in the front row – and that number was absolutely fine with me, seeing as how, through no one’s fault, I was scheduled at the same time as the Legends of the Marvel Heyday panel, meaning guys like Roy Thomas and Joe Sinnot were right next door. I made sure to thank everyone who came, and though things got off to a rough start when the video clips I had prepared wouldn’t play, I felt like I was hitting some of the right chords in the right places as I read different excerpts from the book and moved through the saga.
I gave away a copy of the book as a door prize afterward, and I was glad that the recipient was one of the audience members who had seemed to be enjoying the reading the most, judging from smiles and laughter and nods of recognition or shared experiences. That was the only copy of the book which left that room in hands other than mine, though.
After a short break, Adam and I sat on a panel (again, thanks to the Sci-Fi Pittsburgh folks!) where we talked about our thoughts on and experiences with self-publishing.
Don’t get me wrong: It was fantastic to be invited and to take part, and I remain very grateful for the opportunity. And I know that from a logical standpoint, my presentation didn’t reach nearly as many people as if I’d had a table, but failing through my reading to convince a single person to buy my book really did hit me hard.
The thing is: I still had an absolutely frakking great day. We got there around 10:30 a.m. and within about 20 minutesof our arrival, I met and chatted with Roy Thomas, whose Star Wars comics work absolutely enthralled me when I was little. He was incredibly polite and generous with his time, and when I mentioned I had been much more into Star Wars than comics, he launched into a few minutes about what it was like working on the original movie adaptation and then being among the first writers to work in what has since been labeled “expanded universe” territory.
Adam introduced me to Dave Wachter, who did the cover of Deus Ex Comica, and I bought a long-overdue convention preview edition of The Guns of Shadow Valley – which, by the way, is a-freaking-mazing and wholly deserving of its 2010 Eisner Awards nomination. And Dave put this nice sketch on the back, too:
Walking past one of the tables, my 1980s video-gaming eye was caught by this piece –
– and of course I had to stop, which is how I met Scott Derby. This is actually one of a three-piece series, and I had a blast talking to Scott about this sort of pop-culture stuff, and we got on the topic of original-era Star Wars because a) I was wearing my Kenner shirt, and b) he was sharing a table with Dave Perillo, whose retro-advertising-look pieces included this one –
– about which, naturally, I was also crazy. (He also had this Sgt. Pepper’s print, which, given Jenn’s reaction to the Star Wars art above, pretty much makes my next gift buy for her a no-brainer.)
Since I was still lugging around copies of my book after Adam and I did our panels, I went back to Dave and Scott’s table and we talked a bit more, and both of them were receptive to my books-for-signed-prints trade proposal, which was very much appreciated – they seemed exactly like the kind of readers who’ll enjoy it, and I sincerely hope they do. (Both of them were also familiar with Kirk Demarais‘ work from a couple Gallery 1988 shows, so it was cool to be able to share the book cover – and they picked up on one of my favorite bits: The slightly offset color register of the proof-of-purchase-inspired title logo.)
We paid a visit to Bryan J.L. Glass – yet another super-nice guy – whom Adam had gotten to know at the first Screaming Tiki Con. The three of us chatted for awhile and I bought a copy of his collaborated take on Quixote.
My only other purchase was a hardcover edition of Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft, which I picked up because it was cheap, and I’ve heard good things about Joe Hill’s writing.
We left at about 5:30 or so, I think, and Adam had a craving for Red Robin, so we found one in the general direction we were headed and had dinner in Homestead, Pa. (Which I just learned was the home of the Grays, whom I know because my brother gave me a great book a few years back about Josh Gibson). The place was packed, but there were plenty of open seats in the bar, so we enjoyed a few burgers and then headed west again.
Driving through Pittsburgh and toward eastern Ohio, Adam and I got into this great debate over the use of 3-D in movies – unnecessary gimmick or the next logical evolution in cinema? – that lasted us awhile. It was one of those really fun, engrossing, being-adamant-but-not-an-asshole conversations with well-stated points and nicely-supported counterpoints and analogies and examples, and it carried us for at least the better part of an hour – and it ended up on a note about boobies. So, win.
We kept talking the whole way back about all sorts of stuff, and it really reminded me of our junior and senior years of high school, when we regularly would just get together on Sunday nights after dinner and just hang out and BS, and it was something Adam and I haven’t done in a long time. I mean, if we had planned something like this – you know, a “Hey, the wives are out of town, let’s grab some beer and shoot the shit,” it would have somehow had a different feel than this trip did. Or as Adam put it, when we’ve taken road trips to Bowling Green, we have had similar lengthy conversations, but those, by nature of the trip, have always come with an expectation of back-in-the-day talk.
By the time we were back home, the low points of the day seemed a long way behind me.
I’ll be on the highway soon for Pittsburgh Comicon, so in the event that I don’t feel like sitting back down at the computer when I get home tonight, today’s brief post celebrates two things that go over big in the Booth house: 1) The dolts who do things “wrong” in gadget commercials. My daughter and I have, of late, been especially amused by the EZ (egg) Cracker spots; and 2) The Beatles.
Enjoy this special limited-time offer.
The day has just flown by, and I’m still not entirely ready for tomorrow’s day trip to Pittsburgh Comicon, but I thought this would make for an appropriate pre-convention entry.
This is my original beat-to-hell paperback Marvel Edition of Star Wars, which you can tell I read one or two or four hundred and sixty-eight times. I received this in a shrink-wrapped bundle for either Christmas or my birthday, packaged with the Star Wars novelization and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.
I’m hoping to meet Roy Thomas tomorrow, since he’s the writer and editor behind these – the only comic books I collected, however briefly, when I was little. Some relevant excerpts from Collect All 21! –
I saw this (paperback) version before I saw the actual comic books themselves and I was stunned when, at my friend Trevor’s birthday party, I saw the explosion of colors – particularly in the two-thirds-page illustration of the Falcon’s jump to hyperspace – in the giant-sized Marvel color edition he’d gotten.
The comic books did make it into our house eventually, because I think Dad bought a bagged set of them, maybe in a couple three-packs. The taffy-pulled interpretation of Ben Kenobi’s death by lightsaber kind of weirded me out, like the one I had in a Spider-Man Read-Along-Record book where the villain is transforming from a human to a lizard and there’s a portrait where he’s got a human face, but he’s green and yellow.
I was never a comics kid except for Star Wars and even that didn’t last very long. I had the next six issues, I think, that continued the heroes’ stories beyond the original movie, but really wasn’t in for the long haul.
I do remember an issue starring Han and Chewbacca and a rabbit-alien and a guy named Don Wan Kihotay (imagine my astonishment in high school at realizing this had been a literary reference). And there were others with a red-bearded space pirate and a girl pirate named Jolli, who lives in my brain in a flashback sequence showing her as a little girl watching her father leave his family behind, and then in her death scene, when Han plants a kiss on her cold lips.
I took these comics on a family vacation to Myrtle Beach, I think, and read them in the back seat of the car during the drive down. I was reading that bit about Jolli when my aunt – the same one who’d given me the paperbacks – asked my if I ever read any “regular” comics. Like, you know, “Archie.” I did have a couple of those little volumes of Archie and Jughead, but Star Wars had its hooks in me pretty damn deep by this point and was first choice from here on out.
I’m sure I read those Star Wars comic books into dust, but I’m glad I still have this crumbling-glued, brittle-taped paperback around.
I’ll be nerding out ’77-’83 style for good portions of today and tomorrow, getting my Collect All 21 reading/presentation/Time Travel Belt ready for the Pittsburgh Comicon this weekend.
Star Wars looks to be well-represented at the show, with a dozen saga-related guests and artists. The biggie on the comics side is, of course, original Marvel Star Wars writer Roy Thomas – yes, he’s way more than that in the comic world, what with being Stan Lee’s successor as editor-in-chief and all, but for me he’ll always be the guy behind the only comic books I owned as a kid.
Artist-wise, you’re looking at a long list of varied names and their visions of the saga:
David Michael Beck – Star Wars: Republic and Star Wars: Empire comics
Daxiong – Star Wars Adventures: Luke Skywalker and the Treasure of the Dragonsnakes
Sean Forney – Very nice guy who I run into a couple times a year; designed these T-shirts for 2009 Star Wars Weekends.
Ron Frenz – Another respected Marvel veteran with a ton of cool credits, he worked on Star Wars later in its Marvel run.
John Haun, Brian Kong, Mike Lilly, Monte Moore and Tod Allen Smith have all done impressive pieces for lines like Topps Star Wars Galaxy, Heritage, Clone Wars and Empire Strikes Back as well as sketch cards and prints – and yes, they’re all scheduled to be in Pittsburgh this weekend, too.
So, yes, that’s a lot of Star Wars to run around and take in over the three-day stretch (to say nothing of all the rest of the stuff going on), so may I suggest that on Saturday afternoon, if you’re at the show, why not give your feet a break and join me at 1 p.m. for a trip down vintage Star Wars memory lane and into the prequel era and fandom from a Dad perspective. Naturally, I’d also suggest that you should also stick around for the 2 p.m. book publishing panel Deus Ex Comica author Adam Besenyodi and I are sharing with Paul Anderson. Thanks to the Science Fiction Alliance of Pittsburgh for the invite!
Come on out and say hello!
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
Chapter 1 – Return
She was a Summoner of Trains, and when she danced, it was a spring storm-thrashing of treetops and wind, and she loved Midnight Oil and the Blue Streak at Cedar Point, and the silence in Eva Marie Saint Theater when it was empty.
“- active in drama, from junior high through graduation, and continued to shine onstage at Bowling Green State University,” the minister droned. “A celebration of the life of Kallie Greenburke -”
She gave me a bell I still wear every Christmas Eve, and even though I’ve had to put at least two new ribbons on, I have never been able to remove the few tattered inches of the original ones she used to hang it around my neck one December evening in her dorm room.
“-is a lesson in seizing our own hopes and dreams as each moment passes-”
Oh, God, Kallie, make him stop.
I looked toward the high stained-glass windows struggling to add color to the low gray April sky outside.
I really did half-expect to see her, crouched on a ledge outside the uppermost windowpane, oblivious to the biting wind, rolling her eyes with a giggling impatience, mouthing wordlessly to me to meet her after the service. In my vision, she was wearing my old-style Cleveland baseball cap, the kind with a plain red C on navy blue, and she had a blond braid tucked neatly through the space at the back where the little plastic pegs fastened the headband.
I looked again toward the front of the church, felt my nostrils fill with the thick scent of white candle wax, heard the rustling of wasp-paper hymnals, let my eyes touch the gleaming oak coffin and its dull handles.
Kallie, dear Kallie.
A landslide of memory swept through me: a full moon, low and orange over a three a.m. mist-gathering golf course splashed down into a sweating glass of iced tea on the small cement back porch of the house she roomed in one summer, and I opened a jar of peanut butter, and reached for a glass of milk to begin a lasagna dinner with a sideways smile and her laughter broke in peals.
My throat tightened.
And then the memorial service ended, and we all left to drive to the cemetery.
It was cold, even for April.
She hadn’t been up on the church ledge anyway. I had checked – yes, actually checked and then mentally slapped myself for being so ridiculous – before getting into my car, right after I talked to her mom and dad for a minute.
I had barely stammered out my name – “Joshua Kendall, from Florida; the peanut butter guy” – when her father put his arms around me. He was short, and looked even smaller that day.
“Oh, to have come all that way,” he said quietly. “She’d be so glad you were here. You just meant the world to her.”
Her petite mother gave me a tiny smile that showed a glint of the delicate braces that I always thought made her cute, and she patted my arm before drifting away.
Everyone milled around the parking lot in small knots of low voices and black coats, and I kept looking for her again, just like in the church, imagining she’d be peeking around a corner, or sitting against a tree with her knees drawn up to her chest, and again, wearing my ball cap.
I drove alone in the funeral procession as it wound away from Bryan, Ohio on a long, narrow road between brown fields that still had snow in the plow ruts.
My car felt like a hotel room that I was ready to leave behind. The drive from Florida had been numbing. I vaguely remembered a whale-shaped cloud at sunrise somewhere in the Carolinas and a large, bitter coffee from a Texaco in Bluefield, West Virginia that sent my stomach into spasms with the caffeine and sugar I’d been piling into it for 700 miles.
There hadn’t been time to stop to rest.
Two nights before, I was hanging out in Orlando with a friend I’d known since sixth grade. We’d spent our freshman year as roommates at BGSU, and then he’d packed up for the Sunshine State.
Bowling Green winters – even one – will do that to a person, and three years later, I followed him.
We were sitting on the floor of his living room when the phone rang.
This is forever the moment before: a can of Coke beside my left knee, and a half-eaten slice of microwaved mushroom, green pepper and black olive pizza on a paper plate in my lap. I still associate the chewy texture of reheated pizza crust with that afternoon. Late orange-yellow sun slanted in through a window and made a crooked triangle on the rug.
I can piece that scene together down to the front left corner of a neighbor’s white Toyota, just visible, parked outside, but never can I find any detail, any hint, anything I may have felt or thought in any way to tell me what was going to happen in the next minute.
There was nothing.
“Hold on,” Alex said into the phone and looking at me. “I think you should tell him.” He held out the phone. “It’s Jen.”
“Sniffer?” Another BG throwback. Jen Carmen and I were inseparable during our freshman year, and when she caught a winter cold, I christened her Jensniffer. We hadn’t spoken in over a year, drifting apart after my move south.
“Hi, Josh. I was actually calling Alex to see if he knew where I could get hold of you, and it’s so weird that you’re already there.”
Alex was looking out the sliding glass door to the small cement patio.
“What’s up?” I asked, delighted, but oddly unsure of what else to say.
“Um, Kallie was killed in a car accident last night,” she said. Then, in a rush: “I knew you’d want to know, and I’m so sorry that we haven’t spoken in so long and I feel so bad that this is how I got back in your life, but I had to call you. I’m so sorry.”
That was two in the afternoon, March 31, 1994. By five o’clock, I was in my car heading north on Interstate 4.
Nineteen hours later, I reached Findlay, Ohio and spent the night in my great-aunt and uncle’s basement. The funeral was noon the next day, and there just wasn’t time for me to drive over to North Canton to stay at home with mom, because Bryan would be a four-hour haul from there.
My great-uncle Ray collected Fisher Price toys, old ones, and he kept them in a basement room with a spare bunk bed. I slept there, smelling old plastic and wood paneling. There was a folding wooden chair across the room, and I kept imagining that Kallie would appear in it, leaning forward with one hand cupping her chin, to tell me something, anything.
The chair stayed empty, and the next morning I got dressed and left by nine o’clock. I thanked Aunt Joyce and Uncle Ray. I’d be heading back to Florida straight from Bryan.
The cemetery was in Ridgeland, a tiny town lost out towards the Indiana border.
A hundred or so people got out of their cars and clustered at the edge of a yellow-striped canvas shelter.
Faces from Bowling Green seemed to come back from a long gone time, though I was barely three years out of college.
Girls from Kallie’s sorority filed past her coffin, piling on red roses. One of them I had worked with at the Wooster Street McDonald’s in BG. I think she may have recognized me, even if she couldn’t exactly place my face when it wasn’t framed by a greasy gray visor and a red-and-white-striped work shirt.
Her name was well out of reach, but I remembered a hayride one fall that a bunch of us from McDonald’s put together, and it got really chilly as we rode out through the dark fields, fifteen or so of us all in an open trailer under a pile of wool blankets. And I knew this girl had a boyfriend, because she talked about him all the time, and – her name was Cynthia, and I have no idea why that just popped up – but she was leaning really close to me, sitting in this hay trailer, and putting her head on my shoulder, and the whole thing just gave me an enjoyable sort of junior-high school shiver, even though I didn’t even like her all that much. I mean, she was nice enough and all, but she was a sorority chick.
And I looked at the coffin and thought crossly, “Just like Kallie,” and I got mad at my younger self for being a jerk, especially when I saw Cynthia crying, and her heavy mascara was running like it had always threatened to at work when she’d stand by the fryers too long.
I was the only person at the funeral in a blue-green windbreaker, because I’d been in too much of a hurry to think to grab a heavier coat, or at least something that didn’t make me look so much like I’d just been jogging past on the beach.
I was wearing a windbreaker and a tie. I felt like an idiot, and I didn’t cry.
For one second, I locked eyes with Kurt, the guy who’d been Kallie’s boyfriend in college.
He wore a dark suit, a neatly knotted tie, and a sharp black overcoat, and a lock of his combed hair fell over his forehead, just like it seemed it was supposed to.
I have never known his last name.
Even that day, even then, for that moment, I jealously hated him. I remember seeing one day in the BG News personals that Kallie’s sorority sisters were congratulating her on her “lavaliering” to Kurt – engaged to be engaged, is what I understood it to be.
Dumb little three-dollars-a-line classified ad. But remembering how irritated I’d been over it made me feel sick and ashamed.
The last time I’d seen Kurt was near the end of the summer Linc and I rented the apartment on Murray Street and stayed in Bowling Green. I was drunk off my ass and wandering downtown looking for Kallie.
Unfortunately, I found her.
She and Kurt were sitting on the concrete steps next to the Dairy Queen, and it was around 10:30 at night, but it was pretty warm.
Even though I had several beers in me, I saw their silhouettes against the brick wall, and as I half-staggered closer, I saw her heartbreakingly familiar blond hair, and I tried to look like I was just happening by, enjoying a walk.
They looked like a couple having A Talk.
And there I was, trying to ignore the way the red neon DQ sign swooped and jerked with every step I took, trying not to act like I’d just walked in on a breakup.
Which I had.
“Josh! What’s up?” Never, not once, not even then of all moments, did I ever feel that the smallest, most everyday questions from Kallie were superficial. She must have seen me, a little unsteady even standing still – although I don’t recall stopping – because she asked, “You okay?” before I could reply to her first question.
“Yeah, I’m fine, I’m just heading home, actually,” and I put my chin down and pointed down Enterprise Street toward my apartment.
“You going to get there all right?” To this day, I know that she would have walked me home, she and Kurt, if she’d thought I needed it.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, drawing a deep breath through my nose and somewhat clearing my head. “Really. I’m more tired than anything.”
“All right, if you’re sure. But be careful.”
“Sure thing. G’night.”
Kurt remained quiet as I crossed Wooster Street.
The whole exchange, every word, every sound, every passing car I had only subconsciously registered at the actual moment replayed itself in detail in that quarter-second at the cemetery when I caught Kurt’s eye and noticed that he had been crying.
After the graveside service, I talked to her parents one more time, in the cream-colored basement dining hall of the small Catholic church near the cemetery.
I’d met them only once, on the night she brought me to visit her hometown of Bryan, where they make Dum-Dum suckers and Etch A Sketches in the middle of the northwest Ohio plains.
Kallie’s mom and dad invited me to stay at the church for awhile, for coffee, or cookies, but it was mostly family, and I felt out of place.
Sorry, I told them, and thank you, but I’ve got a long drive ahead.
And I’ve got someplace to visit first, I thought.
So I asked them how to get to Five Mile Bridge.
And I left Ridgeland, headed back east toward Bryan, keeping in mind the directions I’d been given, but still relying heavily on old memories and instincts thumbprinted in my head.
I had only visited the bridge the one time she took me there, and it was night, but I recognized it the second I saw it standing stark against the low April clouds.
The air felt like winter, smelled like oncoming snow.
Her parents had told me that the bridge had been closed to traffic shortly after the December when she took me there forever ago, so I nudged my car up to the shiny red-and-white-striped barricade across the road.
Five Mile Bridge rose up out of the fields like a black steel root of some great oak gnarling from the floor of a forest. Its skeletal frame was rusted and tattooed with graffiti, dotted with silver-dollar-sized rivets, crusted with red-brown powder.
I sat there for a minute, my car off, listening to the wind run past, and I thought of seeing Kallie’s body lying in a funeral home casket less than two hours before.
My stomach had tightened when I’d arrived in Bryan that morning, passing the Ohio Art building, and the courthouse lawn where we’d walked in the snow once. I wondered where Christmas Manor was.
I hadn’t been at the funeral home long before I saw Andie, Kallie’s roommate from Rodgers Quad. She was the only familiar face I found, and we talked for a few minutes in the pale-green carpeted hallway.
In the next room, I’d caught a glimpse of the coffin, open.
I hadn’t been to a funeral home since my grandfather died, and even that time, I spent most of the calling hours babysitting my brothers at one end of this long room while people filed past grandpa at the other. It was only later, when I looked at his still face, that I felt my eyes swell with hot tears.
I waited until no one was around Kallie and approached her slowly.
The first thing I noticed was her hair, combed back from her forehead. Freckles on her nose.
There were notes and things placed near her hands, and I thought, “I must look like a real asshole, just standing here, staring, with my hands in my coat pockets because I just don’t know what to do.”
I cry at the oddest things, the strangest places, sometimes, and when I think I should cry, I can’t, or don’t.
I walked away and wandered the pastel-wallpapered hallways with their dark-wood framed landscapes and those wall-mounted lights that throw half-cones of light toward the ceiling, and after awhile it was time for the memorial at the church.
Sitting in my car at Five Mile Bridge, I scrounged a tattered piece of paper from the glove compartment.
“Goodbye,” I wrote. “I miss you.” It immediately felt stupid, shallow, and pointless. But I didn’t know what else to do, so I got out and looked for a place to leave it.
I had my hands jammed in my pockets, and I was shivering, as I walked around the barrier and up onto the bridge.
“Lord, but these winds are cold. And I am ill-dressed.”
The opening line of “The Second Shepherd’s Play” ran through my head, in my own voice, with an exaggerated croak of age. I’d met Kallie when we were cast for the show in the fall of our sophomore year at Bowling Green.
Me, I was a shepherd.
Kallie landed the part of the angel.
Standing there, cold and numb, I wanted magic. I wanted to hear Kallie, to have her tell me goodbye, to know her laugh on the wind one more time, to hold her hand in a blasting tornado of a train’s smokestack.
Send me a train, Kallie, I may have whispered. All I want is one more train.
There was only a hard wind, and the points on the horizons where the tracks converged remained dark.
With a look over the edge at the drop to the railed, I tested the bridge’s wooden railing and planted a foot on the lowest board. It looked absurd – my black dress shoe perched on the weathered rail.
I reached up and grabbed an icy steel beam, hoisted myself up and half-hung, one foot in the air, one arm holding the folded note for Kallie. Stretching with my free hand, I jammed the paper into a gap where two beams met, let go, feeling rust scrape free under my fingertips, and thumped back to the bridge surface.
While I have always been a big believer in the unknowable and the impossible, I have also always felt that mysteries and miracles touch other lives than mine.
I wrote that note wanting one for myself at last, wanting to believe that as I reached up to say goodbye that Kallie would touch my cold fingertips with her own, warm, and for just one more second, I’d get to know that she had been real.
I scanned the tracks again. No trains.
I felt in my pocket for a penny anyway, and began to remember.
The first day she’d told me about Five Mile Bridge, back in college, we’d been in my dorm room, and she was sitting at my desk, shaking out the contents of a fifty-cent brandy glass I’d gotten at the Salvation Army thrift store during my freshman year.
I glanced out the window, down into the courtyard of Rodgers Quadrangle, trying to look like I wasn’t all too interested in how she took in the bits and pieces of jumble around my part of the room: the Empire Strikes Back poster behind my chair, a wad of Silly Putty lumped on a German textbook, a plastic cup of acorns.
“Hey,” she said, holding up a flat, shiny copper piece, “this is a penny from a train track, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “I made it – well, you know what I mean – on the railroad tracks by the power plant. My roommate last year used to tell me about going to Cleveland and standing by the Rapids – the trains downtown – on this ledge where the trains would rush by like three feet in front of your face, and it sounded so cool, I thought I’d go stand by one of those trains that go through town, you know? And I mean, everybody’s heard about pennies on train tracks, but this was the first time I’d ever gotten to try it. I took maybe seven pennies, and only managed to find that one again, but the whole thing was just so neat – the hot train wind and this huge blur pounding past, and flecks of dust just whipping in your hair, and it was like thunder and an earthquake, I guess -” and I realized three things at that moment.
One, I had goose bumps.
Two, I was suddenly embarrassed. It was just a train, for God’s sake.
Three, she was quiet, staring, tilting her head.
Slowly, faintly, she nodded.
“I have a place to take you,” she said. “A bridge.” And she grinned, but said no more.
A few weeks after that, on a Friday afternoon around four, Kallie’s mom came to Bowling Green to pick us up. It was about an hour’s drive to Bryan, but I don’t remember much, except it was sort of weird, sitting in the back seat of Kallie’s car, with her mom and her talking, and me along for the ride.
When we got to Bryan, we stopped at a little white house that had a sign in the yard that said “Diane’s Hair Salon – Welcome!” There was a door around the back with another sign that said, “Come on in!” Kallie got out of the car.
“She must really count you as a friend,” Mrs. Greenburke said, turning to look at me over the seat. “She doesn’t let anyone see her right after she gets her hair cut. You can sit up front, if you want.”
I got out of the car to get in the passenger seat, and Kallie gave me a smile. “She’s right – consider yourself lucky. Unless it’s a bad haircut, that is.”
She leaned to look at her mom as I sat down. “I’ll call you guys,” she said, “probably forty-five minutes or so. Bye!”
Mrs. Greenburke and I drove to their house, and I met Kallie’s dad. I helped set the table while her mom put lasagna in the oven.
Her parents showed me some of the baby pictures of Kallie in the living room, and we watched a video of her singing in a recital when she was nine.
I remember getting that strange sensation of, “Wow. I’ve only known her a few weeks – she’s got a whole life I know nothing about – this town, it’s hers, just the way Hartville is mine, or Columbus is Sniffer’s. There is so much about people that we can never know, never feel, no matter how close we get.”
Her mom and I went to go pick her up from the salon.
“You’re a lucky one, Josh Kendall,” Kallie grinned as she got in the car. “Nobody – but nobody – sees a new haircut on me before I get to wash it.”
At some point I had given Kallie my take on what it’s like to be a guy going over to your girlfriend’s house for dinner the first time. Little things that I found funny, like if the girl’s mom serves fried chicken, you have to pause before eating to see if the family is a finger crew or knife-and-forkers. Or the inevitability of spaghetti being served if you wear a white shirt.
And I told her how, whenever I was a guest somewhere, invariably, as the meal was to begin, right after the prayer, if there was one, I would reach for my glass to take a drink. It was always a safe move, I told her: you get a quick check to see how the food gets passed around, who serves the meat, whether reaching’s kosher or not – all the vitals you can get in the first few seconds of dinnertime.
She and I shared a smile at the supper table that night, and a slight toast with a nod as dinner began and her mom, dad, and brother dished out the lasagna, reached for the rolls, and knifed into the butter as I, playing it safe, lifted my milk.
It was also during dinner that I cemented myself in her dad’s mind with my confession of a bizarre fascination with the undisturbed surface of the peanut butter in a brand-new jar, and just how tough it can be to carve into it.
From time to time over the next few years, she’d remind me that ever since then, her dad thought of me and smiled when he opened a jar of peanut butter.
After dinner, Kallie and I drove to downtown Bryan.
She stopped to drop off a watch that needed fixing in a jewelry store, a warm, sparkling shop with dark, shiny wood display cases and a spindly gentleman with a jeweler’s loop on a silver chain around his neck.
The Williams County Courthouse sits in the middle of Bryan like a red castle of wonder, floodlit at night. At Christmastime, strands of colored bulbs swoop gently from its clock tower peak to the corners of its lawn. There are also holiday scenes set up, the usual Santa’s workshop, Nativity stable, and winter park dioramas of wood and plastic figures.
We walked among them, leaning over to peer into Santa’s cottage at the rippling red and orange tissue paper fire, smiling at the humming and buzzing motors waving a bright-cheeked little boy’s arm as he cocked a Styrofoam snowball over and over.
And we found ourselves in the Nativity, among the animals and the wise men, took turns posing alongside our alter egos from “The Second Shepherd’s Play.”
We visited Christmas Manor, an old house near downtown full of parquet floors and wooden banisters and high, painted ceilings and a dozen rooms of Christmas trees, each different.
After we wandered the house, Kallie asked the owner if he could shut off the room lights and just leave the trees turned on. It was stunning. A whole house of glowing Christmas trees, a thousand ornaments of every color, a chaos of soft shadows of pine needles thrown on the walls and floors.
I stood in one room that had a great white arch over a set of double doors at one end, and for a second, I imagined myself there with the doors closed, straightening my black bow tie with a goofy grin, and opening the doors to a Christmas party with all my friends, and Kallie just inside the room, turning to slip a freckled smile at me.
From a basket at the cash register, Kallie plucked a small, gleaming brass bell.
“Later,” she said, ringing it between her fingers. “I’ll give this to you. But now, it’s finally dark enough out to go to Five Mile Bridge. C’mon.”
In western Ohio, there are a million miles of two-lane roads that disappear into oceans of fields at night. Kallie lost us among them until the lights of Bryan were far, far gone.
“This is Seven Mile Bridge,” she said as we drove over a paved bridge of blue-green steel girders. “We’re almost there.”
A few more turns at isolated intersections, and the road shrunk to tar and gravel before rising steeply ahead of us toward a bridge. Kallie drove on and parked us dead center.
“This is it,” she said, shutting the car off and opening her door. “Let’s go.”
The only light came from a farmhouse about a quarter-mile distant, lying in a pool of white light from a lamp on a nearby power pole.
It was dark and quiet and still.
Below us, gleaming dully under the low winter sky, a double set of train tracks beamed to the horizons.
“How often-” I began to ask, but she was already pointing to the west, where a star was growing at the edge of the world.
The train was miles away, so we got back in the car and out of the wind for a few minutes, until the dashboard was touched by the snow light of the train’s headlamp. Kallie leaned and looked toward me and then past me, a smile touching her face.
“Come on,” she said.
When we stood side by side at the bridge railing and stared at the oncoming light, my stomach knotted. I shivered, teeth clenched.
A buzz slid along the tracks for a second, sizzled through the soles of my feet, then turned into a rattle and then a humrumbling and then a pulsating chug as the light grew brighter and brighter, until I could see a funnel of heat-shimmered air above the engine. The pounding grew to a roar and the bridge began to shake, and a hundred yards from us, the train’s whistle blasted and ran along the edge of my teeth and my bones and rammed itself through my eardrums and shook my eyeballs, like a scream of those white thunderclaps in a fireworks show.
Kallie slammed her hand over mine and gave it a crushing grip against the rough wooden railing. I looked at her and hollered a whoop of joy and thrill, and then the coal desert sandstorm was on us, around us, as the engine stormed underneath.
Hot wind from a distant summer crashed over our heads in a baking wave, and looking past our feet we watched the boxcars thunder past in a blur.
“Watch!” She yelled. “Run across the bridge with it!” And she dashed the twenty feet or so to the opposite rail, where the train ran from beneath, a rushing river of steel.
When I ran to join her, I dizzied in the motion illusion, seeing the cars flying away underneath me. We whirled to run back, and the train had gone, the stillness disorienting, like the moment a rollercoaster stops back in the station, but your eyes and ears and blood are still thrashing and racing.
The tracks below vibrated, a swarm of metal-shaving bees chasing the blinking red beacon at the caboose that now receded toward Bryan.
“Well?” She asked.
“You know,” I said, “I think I truly appreciate who you are.”
Wind bit, pulled me back to the present, and the train tracks below remained empty to the ends of the world.
What’s funny is I was only able to see the full picture of that bridge in its place within the landscape after Kallie was gone. When I think of that night, that first breathtaking trip, Five Mile Bridge is in isolation, folded in a foggy memory of a drive on dark, unknown roads, and it just materializes from nowhere. And up there, in the winter blackness, there are no fields or trees or anything to be seen but faraway lights.
I found a penny among a clutch of coins in my coat pocket. Someone had drawn a figure eight lying sideways over Lincoln’s face with a black marker.
Kneeling on Five Mile Bridge, I found a slot between the planks, put the penny in and let it go.
It made no sound when it landed, lost.
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