Crossing Decembers: Chapter 2 – Another December
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.
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