Crossing Decembers: Chapter 1 – Return
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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