Crossing Decembers: Chapter 3 – A Glimpse of Orion
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
Chapter 3 – A Glimpse of Orion
I passed the Ohio Turnpike exit for Cedar Point, imagined the roller coasters and sky buckets standing cold and still in the winter sun, surrounded by Lake Erie winds and Ohio sky.
The August after I graduated from high school, I went there by myself one day. I was supposed to go with Kirsten Smith, a girl who grew up down the street from me, but even when she cancelled, I couldn’t help but go. Summer was ending, I’d be off to college in a week, and I needed to breathe sunset and popcorn and neon.
I’d already been to the park once that summer, so when I went back alone, I had it in mind just to let the day unfold, and not feel rushed to hit all the roller coasters or anything.
At one point, I was in line for the Blue Streak, and I kept making eye contact with a blue-eyed brunette as we wound through the back-and-forth queue. She was there with a friend, and I didn’t see any guys or anyone else with them, so I started to smile, and noticed that maybe she was smiling back. She was wearing a tie-dyed shirt, and her dark, straight hair was pulled back into a ponytail that brushed its tip against the back of her neck.
After the coaster ride, I clipped a mental picture of her grin into my mind and headed off into the afternoon.
One good thing about being there by myself was that around four o’clock, when the heat glare from the pavement and the sky gave me a headache, I just found myself a bench in the shade near the Corkscrew and took a nap. Nobody to get irritable with, nobody to get irritated with me for not feeling like doing much that moment other than watching shadows move on my eyelids and feeling the ground shake when the coaster cars roared nearby.
Summer’s finale began to settle over Cedar Point, with a warm wind coming in off the lake and the glow of neon on the midway dying slowly on my retinas.
There was a lunar eclipse that night, low and hazy in the sky, and I was sitting next to the Demon Drop staring up at the shadow crossing the moon when the girls from the Blue Streak line were suddenly beside me.
“We were wondering where you ran off to,” said the one whose smile I remembered, as she gave me a light shove on the arm.
She followed my eyes as I gave another glance at the eclipse, and nodded herself. “Awesome, huh?” she asked.
Her name was Nicole, and she and her friend Markie went to Michigan State University. Classes up there stared soon, they said, and like me, they were making the most of the week before school.
We spent the last few hours of the day together, with surprisingly little small talk beyond our names and where we were from, like we all knew without saying that this was the last night of summer, and there was no time to waste.
Under a bank of fluorescent lights in an arcade, we chucked handfuls of quarters into the skeeball machines, and when I managed to win a stuffed pink star, I gave it to Nicole.
When the game spat out extra, tenth wooden ball, I stashed it in my backpack.
“The Thieving Poet,” Nicole and Markie called me.
After they left, I sat for a few minutes on a bench near the bumper cars, and pulled the skeeball out of my backpack. I rolled it over and over in my hands, feeling the smooth wood, trying to imagine the swarm of luck-wishing fingers that had sent it rolling for years and years in the arcade, under green bears and bright blue tigers.
The stranded lightning storm of the midway flashing played over the dark, shiny ball, the last breath of August whipped over and around and somehow into it, and the smell of grease-dipped cheese pizza slices and Cokes and funnel cakes and the clacking and whooshing of rollercoasters and ferris wheels – all of it, I saw like a whirlpool sucking itself into the skeeball, magic captured.
A few years later, I gave the skeeball to Kallie before I moved away to Florida, and it needed no explanation – the way she looked into it, I knew she held summer in her hands.
Interstate 80 swung northwest towards Toledo, and for a few miles, notched through a far, tiny corner of Wood County. I looked in the direction of Bowling Green, caught sight of tree lines and silos over the flat fields, but I remained too distant to see the smokestack at the university.
It was kind of like driving to the beach, and being able to tell the ocean is just over the horizon by the way the air tastes faintly of sand and salt. I couldn’t see the Wood County courthouse or the beige water tower at the edge of town, but the wind brought with it something of the grass lawn in front of University Hall, the melting cheese of a Pisanello’s Pizza, and the shaded blacktop paths of the Oak Grove Cemetery.
Staring at the afternoon yellow sun over the roads, I thought about getting off the interstate and taking the long way to Bryan, out Route 6 through Bowling Green and Napoleon.
It was already around two-thirty though, and I figured on another hour or so to the Bryan exit, and then maybe another half-hour to head south through town and over to Ridgeland. Going through BG would add at least forty-five minutes to the trip, and in Ohio mid-winter, daylight runs out fast.
I passed the next exit going eighty-five, and the outskirts of Toledo blurred past.
The second semester of my sophomore year, two changes hit me at once: I had a dorm room to myself, and Kallie was in Florida.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I’d lost the roommate lottery big time, and drawn myself an asshole for a roommate – some guy named Craig. I don’t even remember his last name.
Guy had a picture of himself framed on his desk. Nobody else in the shot, just him.
For example, I got home from class one afternoon, dropped my backpack and went to the cafeteria. Come back to the room fifteen minutes later, carrying a trayload of food, and the door’s blocked by a big inflatable air mattress. My shirtless roommate is peering through the cracked doorway, his vacant girlfriend clutching a blanket in the background.
This is what he said: “Dude, can you give me like a half hour?”
He called me Dude incessantly, and bought me a pizza for being such a considerate roommate, you know, letting him have privacy in the room and all.
“Dude,” I thought while I was eating the pizza, “I’m not being polite, it’s just that I hate being in here with you.”
So, under the cover of darkness, I went to the Student Services building one November morning, on the first day to sign up for available single rooms. I was the fourth person in line, but the first guy, camped in the hallway at around 6 a.m. None of us spoke. One girl slept on a pillow.
Eventually, a woman came in around 8:30, and we all filled out our paperwork.
Weeks went by, I checked my mailbox daily – sometimes twice – for a single room assignment notice that never came.
I spent winter break steeling myself for one more semester with Craig.
The day I got back to BG, after Christmas break, he’d brought his own homemade loft unit into the room. The thing was a half-assed monster of two-by-fours and sheet wood, and we were wrestling it into place when someone knocked on the door.
We clambered over the partially-assembled mess of lumber and managed to crack the door about halfway, just enough to see a guy in the hall.
“Hi,” said this skinny kid with glasses, peering through the doorway. “I’m your new roommate.”
Craig and I glanced at each other. “Dude,” Craig told him, “Must be a mistake. Already two guys in here.”
The new kid – Ted – looked at his mom and dad for support. They were all carrying boxes.
“I was on a waiting list for a single room, but if I got it, they didn’t tell me,” I said in a rush, without looking at Craig.
Ted and his parents nodded once, slowly.
“They said downstairs that one of the guys in here was moving,” Ted ventured.
Adrenaline. I ran to the front desk.
“I’m Josh, from 324,” I said. “Did I get a single room reassignment?”
“Yeah,” they said. “You never got told? You’re in room 241 now. Here’s your key.”
And so, as Ted and his parents lugged his boxes into the hallway, I ran back and forth between Craig’s room and my new digs, tossing my books, my clothes, everything I had on the bed, on the floor, in the closet, anywhere, in my new smaller room.
I look back on that room with an odd sort of reverence, because it was mine alone.
I mean, there will always be Alex who remembers our freshman dorm in Harshman Quad, its walls covered in posters from Sting to Tiananmen Square to Love and Rockets to Goldfinger.
And the summer of ’91, with Linc and the grungy apartment on East Murray Street.
But that spring semester, I had a small home all to myself.
For the first few weeks, I’d hear keys jingling in the hallway outside, and for a second, like a physical reflex, my mind would sink and I’d think, “Dammit. Craig’s home.”
There are things that reflect how alone I sometimes felt: for decoration, on the only blank white wall in the room, with black electrical tape, I created a mural of bricks and hung “Pink Floyd: The Wall” posters which Alex had given me.
I’m sure I watched more useless TV than I wish I had, but I also had so much undistracted time to sit and write and just think about stuff. I wish I could have saved some of that for later in life, just to nip at now and then like hot whiskey from a discreet flask.
Tuesday nights, when “The Wonder Years” was on, I’d shut the lights off, take the phone off the hook for a half hour, and turn the extra chair at the foot of my bed so it faced my dresser and my small black and white TV. I’d slouch in the chair under a blanket, prop my feet on a dresser drawer, and hang out with Kevin and Winnie and Paul for half an hour. The thing I loved about “The Wonder Years” wasn’t necessarily the characters or the plot or the writing, but how it helped me remember Whitmer Avenue and things like catching frogs with Melanie, who lived across the street from the wooded ditch we called a creek.
That semester I lived alone, I had to write a short-short story for my German 201 class. I made up a few sentences and titled it “Weil est geregnet hat.” – or was it “Weil es geregnet ist?”
Anyway, it translated to “Because it was raining,” and the gist of it was this:
Because it was raining, I was sad.
I called my friend Kallie, and she said, “Come visit.”
I went to her house, and we ran in the rain and smiled.
Because it was raining, I was happy.
Meine freundin Kallie, I called her. “My friend Kallie.”
It never happened, of course, but sometimes I can swear that my face and hands and ears do, in fact, hold the recollection of her laughter in spattering rain.
Kallie was seemingly already out of my life, having just entered it in a whirlwind of joy and thunder. She was in Florida for the semester, on a college program at Disney World.
A few days before Christmas break, she had given me an envelope, addressed, in blue-green crayon, to Obimobonomosay. Simon.
Inside was a letter, on parchment-style stationery, folded in thirds.
I think she probably gave the same letter to other friends, too, because while the body of the letter was pre-printed on the paper, she had handwritten my name at the top in greeting: Oboshomojay. Josh.
It seems that as life moves in so many directions at once, that which I hold closest recedes farthest and fastest.
There are people who brush into our lives and barely disturb our thoughts, and there are those whose hands we hold in the dark.
And there are those who are gone before we are finished knowing them.
Am I seeing you for the last time this minute, this moment, as it passes?>
There is magic written into the fairy tales of every day, if we know where to look for it, and the beauty of the most fantastic tapestry is dependent on the tiniest strands.
Thank you for being in my life.
And signed beneath in delicate blue ballpoint:
Obuchomomay Oboveomolay, Oballobieomokay.
Much Love, Kallie.
I tacked that letter and its envelope to my cork board that semester, and nights when I’d sit by the window with only my desk lamp on, with my notebook and a glass of water, I’d think of Kallie in Florida.
Over that Christmas break, I had gotten a Mannheim Steamroller CD, “Fresh Aire 7,” that I would put on my stereo, mostly while I was up writing, letting a chill come in through the window.
I put two songs from that CD on the cassette I made for Kallie.
The first, “The Seven Stars of the Big Dipper,” is endless night skies with starlight as clear as notes from a glass bell.
The second is the fourth in a series of seven songs about the seven Chakras, the spiritual centers of the body, called “Fourth Chakra: Anahata.
The liner notes say the color of the fourth chakra is green, its physical location in the body is the cardiac plexus, the heart, and its meaning is “love stricken.”
Anahata can also mean the unstruck sound.
The desire of the fourth chakra is unconditional love.
“The deer of Anahata runs swiftly,” according to the notes, “changing direction often, with an angular path.”
Kallie mailed me a package that February – a thick, padded envelope she’d addressed with calligraphy. Inside was a Star Wars C-3PO T-shirt that she’d bought from an employees-only Disney shop because it had two tiny holes under the robot’s left foot.
Kallie had once told me that I had a habit of looking like C-3PO now and then, when I’d tilt my head in confusion and turn my palms upward, elbows askew.
Years later, my brother Nick was cleaning out his old clothes, and he found that shirt, which he’d inadvertently confused with an identical one of his own. The shirt was soft with age and smelled like the bottom of a dresser drawer. The two frayed holes had each grown to the size of a pencil eraser, but the gold color of the robot was surprisingly bright.
That night, I tossed the shirt over the back of a chair in my bedroom, and while my wife slept, I opened a window, sat in a chilly draft, and listened to the bugs and the wind come through the screen.
For just a minute, I felt my Rodgers dorm room: the hum and occasional shudder of the stubby brown refrigerator beside my desk, the wet pavement hiss of passing traffic on East Wooster street.
Kallie had also mailed a picture of herself in front of the Star Tours ride at Disney, striking what I called her standard Kallie pose, left foot slightly forward, left arm out, fingers slightly curled upward, and her right arm gesturing skyward in a goofy game-show-prize-hostess kind of way.
I have a picture of her dressed as an elf for Christmas, in the same pose.
The spring she spent in Florida, Kallie worked in Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, that part of Disney World behind the big castle, where you used to find 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
I always loved the Mr. Toad ride – it ripped my heart out when they got rid of it – especially the end, where the jalopy you rode in took a turn onto some train tracks, and into a tunnel of eyes-shut darkness, and then suddenly, there was a hot wind and a brilliant glare and the blast of an oncoming train head-on, and then all went quiet and dark, and with a bump, the car careened through a pair of black-painted swinging doors, back into daylight.
It scared me to death when I was little, and even when I was older, and I knew it was all just speakers and air pipes and a floodlight moving on a ceiling track, it still hinted at phantom trains and skeleton conductors that might be summoned forth once in a million rides.
That semester was the only time I took a college Spring Break trip. Mike Smith, a high-school friend of mine who went to Toledo University, drove down to Orlando with me to visit Alex. It was a week of long, casual days, hanging out at Disney for free, and playing Risk over beers.
I saw Kallie twice on the trip.
Mike and Alex and I stopped into the café in Fantasyland one day at the Magic Kingdom, and she was working behind the counter.
I remember she had a tan that really brought out her freckles when she smiled, and she had on one of those Swiss milkmaid outfits the girls have to wear in that part of the park.
We talked for a minute and when she had to get back to work, with a conspiratorial grin and a glance toward her boss, she said, “Here you go sir, have a good evening,” and, winking, she handed me a plastic-wrapped fork from underneath the counter.
I really wanted to see her away from work sometime that week, so one afternoon I volunteered to run to the store to pick up mustard and buns for a cookout Alex and Mike and I were having.
The grocery store was within five minutes of the apartments where Kallie was staying, so I stopped over without bothering to call.
She was putting an earring in when she opened the door, and I figured Kurt was coming over to get her for an evening in the parks.
“Josh! Oh, my God, I know I’ve only got a few minutes,” she said, giving me a quick hug and pulling me inside, “but I have got to tell you about the other night. How are you?”
She headed for a bedroom, changed course and reached for the refrigerator. “Coke?” she asked.
“Sure, thanks,” I answered, taking the can of pop and sitting at the dining room table.
The apartment was Florida vacation-style, all white and pastel and leaf-and-flower prints, wicker chairs and bland sunset seascapes framed next to the windows.
“So,” she called over her shoulder, ducking into the bedroom and grabbing her other earring, “the other night, this guy that I work with and I snuck back into the kingdom after it was closed, and went running around inside the Haunted Mansion.” She sat at the table and put her hands over mine for a second.
“It was so amazing,” she finished, exhaling. “I mean, the Haunted Mansion is my favorite place – I ride it like two or three times a day, before and after I work, and I just love it. Running around in the dust and the quiet, behind the glass and mirrors – it was so cool. I wish I could take you there – you’d just love it. It’s full of tunnels and secret doors and stuff, and the whole time, I was just thinking it’s the kind of place that’s so Josh Kendall.”
I just listened and grinned and sipped at my Coke.
“I feel bad because I wish I had a day to hang out with you,” she said.
“No, it’s cool,” I said. “We’re all on Spring Break, but for you, this is just like another week at work, right? How’s that going?”
“It sucks,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s just a fast-food job, but it’s being here at Disney that’s the good part.”
“And don’t forget the college credit you’re earning, passing out those forks.”
“Yeah, well, it’s still not gonna be a semester’s worth, so I’ll be up in BG taking classes this summer to keep myself on track.”
There was a knock at the door.
“That’s Kurt,” she said, getting up.
I stood, too. “I gotta scoot, and go pick up some cookout stuff for dinner,” I said.
She opened the door, and there was Kurt, a sculpt of summer ice-cream teeth and bronzed face and strong chin.
“Hey, Kurt, you remember Josh?”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding my way. “What’s up?”
“Not much,” I replied. “Spring break here beats BG.”
“You got that right,” he answered, stepping inside.
Kallie gave me another hug. “Sorry I didn’t get to see you longer – I’ll see you when I get back, okay? We’re done down here before the spring semester’s over, so I’ll stop in.”
I squeezed hard. “It was good seeing you. Have fun.”
I’d been gone for an hour when I got back to Alex’s with the mustard and buns, offered some lame “made a wrong turn” excuse for taking so long, and wondered for a long time if Alex and Mike bought it, or even cared where I’d been.
Kallie’s mom told me that after she died, that friend from Disney had asked for something of Kallie’s to put in one of the scenes inside the Haunted Mansion. Whenever I ride it, I still look for the thin, gold necklace of hers that he gave to the dancing boogeymen and the laughing ghosts.
When she came back to Bowling Green in May, she gave me one of her plastic Disney name tags. I kept it in that glass with the plastic fuzzy-face ring, the railroad penny, and a knotted stem from a maraschino cherry.
Somewhere along the road, I lost all of those things.
They’ve been gone for years, I know, but recently I’d thought of the name tag in particular and was emptied by a tremendous sigh, a gasping exhale, and a silent cry for forgiveness.
I asked as I fell asleep that night for her to tell me I was forgiven, to visit in a dream or voice or vision and tell me I was just being silly.
I woke up at three a.m., with cold shakes and a volcanic stomach, and I threw up violently, each heave like a kick in my kidneys and guts.
That wasn’t from her, I thought. It was from that younger, forever-lost me.
I have one entry in a notebook from that Florida trip, written late one sunny morning on the screened-in back porch of the house where Alex lived. I wrote about watching lizards and feeling warm sand under my heels, and the rattling of palm trees in the hot breeze, and how strange it felt to be there and have nothing on my mind but the winter fields of Ohio and downtown Bryan in December.
About a week after that Spring Break, I had the first dream I can remember about Kallie. I wrote about it in my journal:
Last night, I dreamt that I told Kallie I had strong feelings for her. We were close, and she smiled and said, “Josh, you are one of my best friends, and a wonderful person. But this guy I am with, I plan to stay with him a long time.” Then, smiling and caring, she said, “Dear Josh, you don’t know how close to rejection you’ve brought yourself.”
I replied, “I’m in a beautiful forest, with soft green grass and high shade trees, and a full moon night shines incredibly. Far away are the lights of a city, silently moving. But this forest, it’s on a cliff.”
She leaned forward and kissed me for the first time.
It was typical of my notebook from that semester – pretty self-absorbed and melodramatic, but I allowed myself that much, late nights alone.
As I slowed my car to get off the turnpike at Exit 2, nine miles east of the Indiana border, I wondered how much of that me remained, and how close to the surface this trip might bring him.
It cost me six dollars and thirty-five cents for my three hours on the turnpike, and I turned south on Route 117, which arrowed south toward Bryan.
With the late afternoon sun now coming in the passenger side of the windshield, the left side of my face felt suddenly cool, and it ached a little. I realized I’d been squinting slightly with that eye on the freeway.
Despite the endless, flat landscape, Bryan still seemed to pop up surprisingly. I passed a farm equipment dealer and a few houses, and then suddenly, tree-lined streets off to the side, small storefronts facing clean sidewalks, and a sign reading “Welcome to Bryan” just as the road dipped under a stone railroad trestle.
The town square was neatly arranged just beyond, and nothing, it seemed, had changed.
I kept heading south, towards Route 6, a few miles out of town, which would take me due west into Ridgeland, where Kallie was buried. At the southern edge of Bryan, I pulled into a Burger King to go to the bathroom.
There were a bunch of high-school age kids hanging out, talking about what to do that night, what they did last night, sharing french fries and sipping at Cokes.
And it was right then that I felt strangely foreign, being in Bryan without her as a guide.
Ever since Kallie died, I have somehow felt responsible for loving Bryan, and trying to remember how she used to talk about the place she grew up. I once went out of my way to see a local softball tournament in which the Bryan High Golden Bears were playing, and I still have the lineup card that one of their pitchers filled out for me. Springtimes, I check to see what the Mask and Sandal theater kids are putting on at the high school.
It’s the same with other things, too, like her affinity for The Hooters or Midnight Oil. I have three Midnight Oil albums that I’ve probably listened to once each in the past half-dozen years, but I keep them because they were Kallie’s favorite band. And I’ve kept a newspaper article from three days before Christmas 2000 about the last Etch A Sketches to roll off the Bryan assembly lines before Ohio Art moved production to China.
When I was in tenth grade, I was sitting in my American History class one day, and looking at the big map of the United States up at the front of the classroom, my eyes stopped on Indiana. I was dating a girl who had been born there and moved to Ohio when she was eleven.
“I will never know that life in Indiana that she had, and it’s gone,” I remember thinking, and for some reason, that unknown, that strange sense, twisted my stomach into a knot.
That same sort of twitching began to grow that afternoon in Bryan, as I watched two men get into a white pickup truck with paper cups and bags of hamburgers and drive off.
They might have known Kallie.
I watched a young mother shift her daughter from one hip to the other while she handed the kid at the counter a ten-dollar bill, and I remembered that Kallie had worked at a bank here in town, and I wondered where it was.
There was a boy in a Cookie Monster sweatshirt eating french fries. He probably went to the same elementary school she had, I thought.
I got back in my car.
When I hit Route 6, I looked east to where I knew the two-lane road reeled between fields and curled around Napoleon, Ohio, and crossed the Maumee River before it headed into Bowling Green.
To the west, Ridgeland. The sun was lower, orange-yellow, and it gave me a headache like the ones that linger behind your eyeballs after an afternoon nap that lasts a half an hour too long.
It reminded me of another Kallie dream I had after she died.
Kallie was sitting at a desk on a stair landing, and we were on this wide spiral staircase that wound along a curved wall, like the tower of a castle, but the stairs would have been on the outside of the tower. The walls were smooth, though, not brick or stone.
Anyway, there was a group of us, I think, and she sat down at her desk as everyone said goodbye and continued walking down the steps.
I don’t think it registered in my mind as a dream at the time, but I think that’s when I remembered that Kallie was dead. So I let the others go, and I stayed to give her a long hug. I wasn’t sure if this was the past or the future or even a time at all, and though I recognized nothing, it still felt like Bowling Green in summer.
And I had this odd sense, knowing of her death to come on a Columbus highway in a springtime storm, because I wasn’t sure she could see it herself, or if I should tell her.
So we hugged, and when we let go, I gave her a kiss on the cheek, and saw something like weariness or knowledge, some tiny wrinkles of experience or sorrow, small, almost unnoticeable shadows in the corners of her eyes, just beside her nose.
She does know, I thought, she knows and she feels it, the future, and the weight it is leaving on this nonexistent moment, this now of no time or place.
And we kissed, and I sort of looked confusedly at her and asked what was happening, and she couldn’t answer, so I embraced her again and told her I loved her.
And she said she loved me. We sat on the stairs, me on the one above her, leaning on her shoulders with my arms wrapped around her, and she said, “If I were going to be in love, right now, if I wanted to be in love with someone and have someone to hold at night and be with, it would be you.”
And that was all, and enough.
From there, the dream fragmented into railroads and floods. I woke when the phone rang, and had a dull throb in my skull for hours after.
For a long time, but especially since Kallie’s accident, I have held tight to the belief that dreams about the dead are visits.
Cancer took my dad not long after I moved to Florida. About two months before he died, he and mom and my brothers came down so Dad could make a last trip to the Gulf Coast, where we’d always gone on vacation.
When I picked them up at the airport, it was the first time I saw how the disease was eating him away, and while his eyes and smile were the same, his face was gaunt, his arms and legs brittle.
Soon after he died that May, I had a dream about him, and I remember hugging him, and when I woke up, all that I could remember was how large he had been in the dream – not round or fat, but with his body nourished and healthy and full again.
I have had others since that dream, but that’s the one that stays with me.
Driving towards Ridgeland, I remembered the last time I’d seen that stretch of road, a slow procession of cars crawling westward, headlamps burning dimly in the daylight.
Downtown was a block of orange-bricked buildings facing each other, and a couple dozen diagonal parking places on each side of the road. I knew I needed to turn left to go to the cemetery, south to the shaded, narrow streets of close, small houses, but it hit me that I didn’t have any flowers or anything for Kallie’s grave, so I parked on the empty main street.
The only flower shop was closed, late on a Saturday afternoon.
When I crossed the railroad tracks at the edge of downtown, I was surprised at how familiar the corners of the road seemed, and how I knew just where to turn to head past the grey-stone Catholic church and down where the road turned sharply into the entrance of Shady Elms Cemetery.
Aside from my Grandfather, Kallie is the only person who has ever really mattered to me that is in a grave. Dad was cremated. Sounds weird, but I just didn’t know what to expect – from myself, really. Would I be moved? Would I cry? What was I looking for?
I drove to the part of the cemetery where I remembered standing, that April, on a low-sky, cloudy cold day. I had a general idea, but still had to look around for a minute or two. I stood in place and just stared over all the headstones and markers, looking for “GREENBURKE.” Didn’t see her.
Took a few steps, looked around again. Didn’t see her. Turned around, and there was her headstone – KALLIE TABITHA GREENBURKE. It was black and gleaming.
There was a Christmas tree with little ornaments sitting there, and a snowman, and an angel. Jesus, I thought, now what? I mean, right then, I didn’t feel like crying even, it was just so … blatant. That’s how it felt. Just so declarative: Kallie’s Grave.
I went to the car and got a set of headphones, and though it felt silly, I did exactly what I had planned to, sitting cross-legged in front of the stone and listening to “Automatic for the People,” starting with “Sweetness Follows:” It’s these little things they can pull you under / live your life filled with joy and thunder.
It was still sunny out, and I wanted to leave her something, but I couldn’t think of what.
Then I remembered the one class that Kallie and I took together at BG.
It was a pop culture class, and I don’t remember what it was called, but it was about passing on traditions in the family, oral histories, folklore and things like that. We partnered up on one small project where we were supposed to teach each other a craft or game or something from our childhoods. She showed me how to make a fortune-teller, one of those notebook-paper gadgets of folds and corners where you pencil mystic phrases like “absolutely never” and “it will be so.”
In return, I taught her the finer points of tabletop paper football.
I stopped the tape and went to my car and grabbed a notebook. Sat down again, listened to “Man on the Moon,” and tried to remember how to fold a notebook-paper fortune-teller.
First try, I ripped the paper. Second try, I made some wrong folds, but stopped and managed to get it done. It was cold, sitting there, fidgeting the little paper thing back and forth, back and forth, listening to “Nightswimming,” which always is, and forever will be, Kallie. I sat there, and when I started to cry, I saw myself reflected in her headstone, and I felt goofy.
I touched the stone, I touched the grass. I tried to imagine Kallie motionless beneath me, in some big, glossy wooden box. It was impossible.
I wasn’t going to get a vision, a visitation or a revelation, and I knew it. But I’d built this trip up like a pilgrimage anyway, and so the wind blew in off the fields and my ears got cold, and I wondered what the hell I thought I was doing.
It took a long time to leave the cemetery, like when you give up on watching for shooting stars, and you just know when you turn your back, they’ll rain from the sky silently while you head back in the house.
I tucked the fortune-teller into the branches of the little Christmas tree and walked away.
It was too light to go to Five Mile Bridge, so I drove back to downtown Bryan. Courthouse square was done up for Christmas, just like nine years back.
“ Lord, but these winds are cold. And I am ill-dressed…”
I went to Christmas Manor, saw the room I wrote about back in ‘90, with the high-arch doorway and the double-doors I imagined opening. I finally bought a Christmas bell as close as I could find to the one Kallie had given me. The only ones they had seemed shinier, but a little less solid, more tinny. I bought one anyway.
When I left, the sun was setting.
I drove west out of town, and kept seeing signs that said “Bridge Out Ahead.” I had minor panics that Five Mile had finally been torn down. Later, I would almost wish it had.
It was Seven Mile Bridge that was out, so I backtracked and detoured and instinctively managed, for a third time without Kallie, to find myself parked in front of the familiar barricades.
Whole sections of the railings were crumbling or missing There was an oblong footprint of smeared soot toward the middle, like someone had tried to set a fire.. There were “DANGER: NO TRESPASSING” signs nailed up. Without a thought, it would have been easy just to walk off the edge and fall the thirty feet or so to crumple on the tracks below.
It ached. I waited a minute or two, prayed for a train, and fidgeted with the bell I’d bought for Kallie. What I’d planned to do was drop it from the bridge onto a passing locomotive, maybe into one of those open-top haulers full of coal. Kind of like the day of her funeral, when I’d stuck that note up in the girders, I guess.
But the air remained quiet, and there were no headlamps burning along the miles of track beneath.
Placing the bell on the railing, I muttered, “Miss you, Kallie,” and walked off the bridge without looking back.
Once I was in my car, though, I couldn’t actually give up on seeing a train, and I drove further west, away from Bryan.
I turned south on the next road, which ducked under the railroad tracks through a shadowy stone tunnel.
I turned left again, back toward town, struggling not to give up, not wanting to leave without one more train, and I swung north once more on the road that would lead me to the south side of Five Mile Bridge.
A small and eerie patch of woods huddled next to the rise on this side. Chills tingled the nape of my neck, and I found it hard to turn my back on the forest.
And then I heard a whistle, closer than I’d have thought, and a rhythmic shudder from the west.
I got out of my car and looked up at the bridge, and my headlights caught a glint: Kallie’s bell. I wanted to send it off on the train that was now closer, brighter, humming, and yet I felt somehow scared to be on the bridge alone. I started to take a step onto the wooden beams, looked toward my feet, and was overcome by fright and despair and a ripping sort of feeling that split me in two as the train bore down, and I knew, goddammit all, I knew that this would be my last visit to Five Mile Bridge, and oh, God I wished so hard that I had just waited over on the north side and not come over here to see what I had stepped on.
Someone had neatly painted a large white rectangle on the planks, like a canvas being prepared, or like a sheet of paper for a note.
For a note.
Inside was painted in red: It ends here. Goodbye.
Oh my god. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod, and the train was so close now, and I could not bring myself to set foot on the bridge for fear of what I was afraid I was realizing, or thinking I was realizing, and the train roared under the bridge, and I stood there, fighting, fighting and knowing and angry at the thought that someone, if my fear was true, had somehow sunken my holy place into fear and darkness, and the train thundered past, and I ran, ran, RAN out onto the bridge, saw the cars roaring endlessly from the west.
I caught a glimpse of Orion above, wavering in the baking, howling air, felt the starlight pinpricks burn themselves onto my retina. I swayed, imagining my body whirled like a dead leaf and sucked from the edge of the bridge, carried off on the cold, rusted roof of a boxcar.
I managed to steady myself, grabbed Kallie’s bell and half-shoved, half-threw it down, heard it clang on the top of a car, and I was hollering I LOVE YOU KALLIE even as my feet were turning and running to my car, and I leaped from the bridge to the soft mud at the roadside, and was in my car, safe, and backing away, away.
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