Crossing Decembers: Chapter 4 – Bowling Green, Ohio
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
Chapter 4 – Bowling Green, Ohio
I had gone a hundred yards in reverse before I realized I was in the wrong car.
I slammed on the brakes, stalling.
What hit me next was that I was behind the wheel of a car I knew: my long-gone 1979 Mazda GLC station wagon. The half-inch wide ugly split in the dashboard cemented it. I only had that car six months before it died on me, but those six months included the perfect summer of 1991. Sitting on the torn seat, I tentatively put my right hand on the gearshift and jiggled it – the top, as always, was loose. My car. My first ever “this-is-mine-not-Dad’s” car. I called it the Millennium Falcon: “She’s not much to look at, kid, but she’s got it where it counts,” I used to lie.
I got out and ran my hands over the hood, the door handles, the bent-in door of the gas tank cover.
Full of questions, I could only stare around at the fields and empty roads, wondering how the Mazda had wound up out here, where my other car had gone, and what else had changed while I was on the bridge.
And I remembered Orion.
I was in a car accident once in Florida, late after work one night. This girl that I worked with was in her car next to mine at an intersection, and when we both pulled through on the green light, some drunk being chased by the cops ran a red light and plowed into both of us.
Sarah, the girl from work, got broadsided, and my car got shoved by the back end, since I’d been making a left-hand turn.
When I went to sleep that night, I realized, playing the moment of impact over and over, that I had heard the heavy thud-crunch of Sarah’s car getting smashed just before I got hit, but my mind didn’t recognize it until long afterward.
I climbed onto the front of my car and looked up at the sky.
Orion had vanished.
The spring constellation of Bootes and the telltale gleam of Arcturus soared noiselessly.
I leaned back against the Mazda, picturing the fields falling away, the glow of streetlit towns seen through storm clouds, the great dark lakes to the north, the oceans and continents, and the Earth in its path around the sun in a distant arm of the galaxy, and when I tried to imagine all of humanity gathered in perpetual motion on the swirled blue glass hanging in orbit, all I could find were two figures on a bridge and a train screaming beneath on a cold December night in Ohio.
All my life, there has never been so concrete an image of the infinite as the winter stars: Orion, the Pleiades, Cassiopeia. When I was five, I stayed up one Christmas eve and opened my bedroom window to the cold, and looked out over the neighborhood, the chimneys curling smoke skyward, the silence of the streets, the shadowed driveways. And above all, an amazing dusting of stars. I didn’t know it then, but I was seeing Orion, the trio of suns marking his belt resting sideways over the house next door.
The hunter had floated over the Ohio fields that night on the bridge, and the seven sisters in blue, and the captive princess.
Now they were gone, and it was seemingly spring.
When I was little, our house had a sliding glass door facing the backyard. Winters after dark, I used to stand and press my nose against the glass during snowstorms, watching the flakes whirl and fly. If I stared long enough, I felt as though I were the one moving, wheeling and rushing through the wind. Then I’d blink, and I’d be still again, fogging up the glass with my breath.
Like the night of my car accident, my mind began to slowly reel out those last few moments at the bridge – the note, the train, the stars, the bell, and my own footsteps pounding as I ran away.
Orion, I now realized, had flickered, and then he had blinked out.
In that moment on the bridge when I had seen the sky, it was me careening through space, thrown in rollercoaster loops and stomach-flop turns through a maelstrom of stars and blackness. And then I had blinked, and run, and found myself in my old Mazda.
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and got back in the driver’s seat.
I restarted the car – it took two tries, naturally – and pushed the clutch in. Fumbling instinctively under the seat, I felt a cassette tape amidst the sagging springs and foam rubber. Without looking at it, I pushed it into the player and turned up the volume. A hiss crackled out of the sole speaker beneath the crack in the dashboard, and I headed back towards State Route 6, singing along at the top of my lungs: “That’s GREAT it starts with an EARTH-quake, birds and snakes and airplanes, LENNY BRUCE is not afraid…”
I stopped at a gas station in Bryan to get gas and a Coke. The gas gauge in the Mazda had never worked, frozen mockingly about seven-eighths full. I asked the girl behind the counter for a receipt. Without taking her eyes off the portable black-and-white TV she had beside the register, she printed out the slim paper and handed it to me. She was chewing bright blue gum. It was March 29, 1994, 11:54 p.m.
In just under twenty-four hours, Kallie’s car would skid sideways on a rain-slicked road in Columbus, hit a guardrail, and flip over. Forty-five minutes after that, she would die in an emergency room.
“ Is there a phone book back there I could look at?” I asked the clerk.
She looked toward the window, and before she could reply, I answered myself. “Ah. Payphone outside. Didn’t even look when I came in. Thanks.”
She went back to her TV.
I looked up Kallie’s parents in the Bryan phone book, scribbled their number on the back of the gas receipt. Way too late to call now, but I was headed to Columbus, and I figured I’d find time in the morning to call and get Kallie’s number from them.
I wasn’t going to sleep anyway.
I got into the car, popped open the Coke, and headed east toward Bowling Green.
It was a quiet hour-long drive, after I turned off the tape player and rolled the windows down to let the summer wind in.
The weirdness of the situation began to impress itself upon my mind. I think the first clue of this was when I found myself reasoning that it would be okay to stop in Bowling Green for a couple of hours, because it was March of 1994, and I would have already graduated and left town. I saw no need to possibly screw up my whole plan by running into myself. And if I saw someone who might recognize me, well, hell, I could play that by ear. Maybe I was in town for a day, just passing through, or maybe they had me confused with someone else. Who cared? I’d wing it.
Still, it kept flashing through my mind like distant, silent heat lightning beyond the horizon: Orlando, Florida, humming its way through this very same summer night, and under the orange glow of a streetlamp, the heavy door to an apartment where, younger and unaware, I slept.
In a day and a half, that guy would be heading this way.
Tomorrow afternoon, I would be in Columbus.
The summer that I bought the Mazda and stayed in BG instead of going home to North Canton began as a casual conversation the March before, late one night, in Linc’s dorm room in Rodgers Quad.
I had met Lincoln Harbaugh during the one-act-play festival my freshman year, and he wound up two doors down from me when I went back for my second fall at school.
The two of us goofed off one afternoon and made a tape of songs for a friend of his, interjecting our own smart-ass jokes and stupid stuff, and we had so much fun doing it we got a radio show at WBGU, the campus FM station.
He was thinking of staying in town for the summer, to work on his radio program – he’d been named Heavy Metal Director at the station – and just hang out somewhere other than St. Marys, his western Ohio hometown.
Me, I was planning on staying in BG for about six weeks or so to take a few classes, so I said, hey, let’s get an apartment, and I’ll stay here all summer!
That was a Wednesday night.
By Thursday afternoon we’d found a place, and that night we called our parents.
And so was born the summer of ’91: Linc, me, and the upstairs cubbyhole apartment at 656 1/2 E. Murray Street.
That summer, Kallie and I split a bottle of rum, mixed it with a two-liter of Coke, and watched “The Graduate,” which I’d never seen. I took my little brother to Detroit for a Tigers’ game. I had a crush on a girl who looked like Ariel, Disney’s red-haired Little Mermaid. I sat on top of the storage garages across the street and stared at the sky. Linc and I watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Twilight Zone” on a twelve-inch black-and-white TV. I acted as Assistant Director of a kids’ summer camp in North Baltimore, Ohio. We won concert tickets from a Butterfinger candy bar. I did a radio show from noon to three on Mondays at WBGU. We tangled with a dinosaur of an air conditioner. I wrote ten essays for a six-week English class. I sat on a golf course at 2:30 a.m. and watched a full harvest moonset with Kallie. I read a lot: Shoeless Joe, Tales from Margaritaville, the Great Gatsby , and others. I turned the pages for Kallie when she was an organist at a wedding. I tie-dyed a shirt, wore it once, and washed it before it had set. Linc and I doggedly pursued the two girls who did the radio show after mine, with varied success. Unable to find a better summer job, I worked at McDonald’s. I sat on Kallie’s sunny back porch and talked an afternoon away. We propped open our apartment windows with wooden spoons and spatulas. I walked a long way out towards the west edge of town, and rode my bicycle out even farther. We went to see Backdraft at the dollar cinema with Kallie and her roommate Andie. Green northern lights appeared one night over the flat cement wastes of the old ketchup factory. I climbed onto the roof of Overman Hall late one afternoon, barefoot, chasing a rubber ball. We ordered a lot of Pisanello’s Pizza.
I drove the same silver 1978 Mazda GLC station wagon that had now been returned to me, lay awake in bed at night and listened to the trees and the trains outside my window, and generally drank life deep and long amidst the great waving fields of Ohio.
The water tower marking the western limits of Bowling Green swung into view, and I felt an odd tightening in my stomach. A patch of woods across the roadside field obscured the floodlit beige landmark a moment later. Much of the magic I have come to believe in sprung from the time I spent in this small university town on the Ohio plains. It was like a well that, for just a universal blink, burbled forth small miracles and impossibilities, running crystalline and unseen beneath our unsuspecting feet, sanctifying the ordinary, canonizing the everyday. It’s a sort of fluid resonance of wonder that I think everyone feels someplace, whether it’s a hot, sunny baseball field or the basement of grandma’s house, or a woods just before sunrise. I had begun to feel it during my freshman year at BGSU, sitting with a friend beside a motionless pond, scooping reflected moonlight from the chill water with our hands. But after Kallie took me to Five Mile Bridge, I realized more truly than ever that the sources of awe are all around, even, or perhaps especially, in the most common places and voices and winds.
The water tower slipped back into my line of sight as I neared the sleeping edge of town. Downtown would still be buzzing this time of night. Even in summer, there were enough students to keep the bars open late. The west side of town, though, was the residential side, where most of the permanent residents of BG lived. The houses on this side were owned, not rented, and the cars parked on the streets had Wood County license plates. Apartments were rare. The locals ate at the McDonald’s on South Main instead of the one across from the freshman dorms, and there weren’t any bookstores over here that would buy back your used texts for half-price. A detail popped into my head that pretty much summed it up: I was taking a walk, late one afternoon that summer, and it had rained that morning. I was over near the city park, past the county library, and I saw a Green Machine sitting in the soft, wet grass and mud in someone’s front yard. The Green Machine was the badass mutant brother of the Big Wheel most kids had when I was little. You sat way back in the plastic seat, and steered with levers at the side instead of handlebars. Right there was the difference between the west side of town and the east. Someone’s kids were growing up here, throwing rocks, riding bicycles on the sidewalk, hollering at sunset for just ten more minutes before having to go inside. East side of town, generally speaking, you didn’t see many Green Machines in front yards.
I was still thinking about the Green Machine when I heard a saxophone.
I slowed the car and pulled to the side of the road, the white gravel lying still in the beam of the headlights. The fields rustled. And I heard it again: a saxophone, distant but clear. I was still a mile or so from town, and there were no houses or lights nearby. When I think about it now, I guess it was a sort of echo.
I’d bought a saxophone that summer. Spent an afternoon driving to Toledo, searching for a music store I’d looked up in the phone book at the Wood County public library. It was an E-flat alto sax, I think. Used, of course. Cost me a hundred and fifteen bucks, plus reeds.
I checked out an elementary sax instruction book from the university library, and bought another at a small music shop downtown.
Funny thing about that library book: I returned it a few weeks later, before it was due, and though it sounds weird to remember a particular day in the middle of that summer, I know I took it back because I ran into Kallie on campus, on the sidewalk near the carillon. I also remember wondering whether she liked my Indians baseball cap better facing forward or backward on my head, since I’d worn it backwards that day. At any rate, those details gave me the assurance I needed for what followed.
A few weeks later, I got a card from the library telling me the sax book was overdue. Called them up: Nope, I said, I turned it in. Okay, they said, we’ll look again. Just to be sure, I ransacked my bedroom, then the rest of the apartment, looking for it, even though I remembered that bright afternoon, Kallie, and my Indians hat. The library people called back a few days later: haven’t found the book, you must still have it. I assured them I did not. They remained unconvinced. Still a few days later, a lady called, really condescending (and that made me even more stubborn), and told me that several searches of the library had not turned the book up, and I’d have to pay for it. I insisted, again, that I had returned it.
“ Fine,” she said, sounding completely convinced I was both a thief and a liar, “We’ll do a top-to-bottom search, which means I have to call in all our librarians, and we start on the top floor and do a shelf-by-shelf, book-by-book search for it.”
I hung up, pissed off and indignant as ever. Two days or so after that, I got another call from the library. They’d found it. Ha-goddamn-friggin’-HA, I thought, and I wanted so much at that moment to meet that snooty librarian face-to-face and just be rude and smug about her oh-so-painfully-difficult BG Library SuperSearch. God, ma’am, I hope nobody was hurt or dehydrated or lost in the process.
I have been very wrong about many things more important than that $3.79 library book, but few times have I been as right about something so petty and had it feel so good.
Back to the sax:
One night, I drove west on Route 6, south on a road I’d never seen, and west again on another, until the lights of Bowling Green were a far orange glow.
The fields were dark and alive with summer.
I slowed, gravel crunching under my tires, and the roadside weeds whisking the passenger side door as I pulled over.
It was spooky, out where the only light came from the moon. That part of my mind that will always believe in the boogeyman conjured him up for me, just out of eyesight, padding softly and steadily across the rows of shin-high corn shoots.
Maybe even more frightening than the boogeyman were the headlights I’d see passing in the distance. Better wrapped in a phantom’s chill than be discovered, a bad sax player standing at the side of a lonely road well past nightfall, cracking the sweet sky with bitter squeaks and awful groans and ear-picked half-tunes.
The air and the sky and the growing corn did strange things to the music. No concert hall echoes, no pavilion reverberations into the night, but a strange absorption of the notes – no walls anywhere to send the sound back to me. It just went … out. Up, down, beyond, behind, far, just … away. It wasn’t the muffled effect of a snowstorm on a December holler, no cotton-eared deafness, just the sensation that the night was drinking up the song silently, the way a wide subterranean river disappears under a mile of stone, inhaling itself into dark infinite lungs.
I was there for only a few minutes before a white beam arced across the tender corn leaves: a car was heading my way. I scrambled, tossing the horn on the passenger seat and jabbing my jangling keys into the starter, sputtering the engine to life and stirring the weeds and dust at the road’s edge.
Another time, I woke up just before sunrise, strapped the sax on my back, and got on my bicycle. Headed east – Poe Road past the airport, over I-75 as the sky brightened. Took a left onto a narrow road and stood at the side as the sun came up, played a few notes of something or other, sent them into the dewy air with the bird cries and the inaudible breathing and stretching and awakening of a small town in a midwestern summer.
Most of me knows that my love affair with that sax was more about image than ability or desire, but there is the corner of me that really misses that horn, badly as I played it, working on scales in the living room as the air conditioner thrummed into the night.
I used to try and figure out tunes by ear.
One night, I managed to put together the opening bars of the Star Wars theme, and after a few warm-ups, I ran out across the street, where there was a great expanse of concrete rubble we called the Wasteland, where there had once been a ketchup factory.
So I dashed out there, and it was well after dark, the summer sky starry and endless, and I started blasting out “Star Wars,” sending it caroming off the cement and the brick walls of a nearby warehouse, until I heard the first angry calls from an open window, and I ran back to the apartment, grinning like an idiot.
One night, I blundered my way into “Dreaming,” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. For a new wave pop song, it kind of sounded neat, drawn out in the wind a little bit.
I called Kallie on the phone as I tucked the sax carefully into its case. “Kallie?”
“It’s Josh. Whatcha doing?”
“Studying. What’s up?”
“Can you come over for a few minutes? Bring your car?”
“Sure. I could use a break. I’ll be over in ten minutes.”
I was watching from the kitchen window, and I called down to her: “Do me a favor, okay? Stay in your car, but open the trunk and don’t look in the rear-view mirror.”
“Where to, Josh Kendall?”
Off we went.
Bill’s Hill rises from a corner of the golf course at the eastern edge of the BG campus. Tucked into the northern side of it is the sixteenth green. The other sides of the hill are wide and steep, and in the winter, kids hike there from the dorms carrying cafeteria lunch trays to use as sleds.
Kallie shut her car off and looked at me, raising her eyebrows.
“ Pop the trunk,” I said.
I opened my door and headed around to the back of the car.
Her eyes lit on the saxophone case, then met mine with a gleam.
“ Come on,” I said, slipping the strap around my neck, cradling the sax with one hand, and extending her the other. “Up we go.”
A low blanket of clouds rolled west to east, reflecting the glow of Toledo, thirty miles up the Interstate. The campus lay quiet, eclipsed by the great dark form of the stadium, and the face of the Wood County courthouse clock glowed beyond like a parchment moon.
As she turned east to look over the dark fields, I worked my way about halfway through the first verse.
Kallie looked back at me, grinning.
I started singing along in my head:
With every day that passes, I fall nearer to the ground…
I missed a note because I made the mistake of looking at her smiling face.
“ Sorry,” I said. “Gimme another shot.”
She stepped back, and sat cross-legged on the grass.
It seems that I’ve been looking for something that won’t be found-
She had her hands folded in her lap, and she just sat, listening.
I was only dreaming. I was only trying to catch your eye.
I was only wishing you would notice me.
Instead you said goodbye.
I lowered the sax and shrugged, and offered her a hand to help her up.
“ That’s it, really. I figured it out tonight,” I said.
She didn’t take my hand right away, but when she did, I saw tears in the corners of her eyes.
Then the music was gone, and I was alone at the roadside again. The breathing fields that had drawn in my music that summer and exhaled it slowly into my waiting ears on this night out of time were beginning their cycle again, and the air and the notes and the stars and the smell of growing corn were being gathered once more.
I pulled back onto the road and drove into Bowling Green.
On the way in to town, I’d been thinking about how to pass the night. I had nowhere to stay, but I figured I’d be better off in BG than hitting Columbus in the wee hours.
So I thought I’d just wander and recall.
And then I thought of getting a notebook for Kallie.
My senior year of high school, I dated a German exchange student named Julie. Fell madly in love with her and set myself up for that first great, true heartbreak.
After Christmas vacation, I began to fill a notebook for her to take back home – one of those monster, five-subject 180-page books about an inch thick.
It started with bad high-school poetry, of course, free-form verses titled “For Julie, No. 12” and things like that. It took about two months to fill the first section, but it didn’t seem to matter because she wasn’t leaving until summer anyway.
About halfway through the second section of the notebook, I realized I would be hard-pressed to fill all the pages. I started writing down everything – things I wanted her to remember, like the cloudy day she taught me how to waltz on the shuffleboard courts at Monument Park, or the time in the McDonald’s parking lot when I slapped her in the ear with a ketchup-sogged french fry.
The second section filled in four weeks, the third section in a week and a half, and by then I was doing things like writing goofy rhymes one line on a page, or writing in crayon, or taping in blades of grass from my back yard.
And then, suddenly, she was leaving in three days.
The fourth section took forty-eight hours to fill, and I began the fifth section after dinner the night before her flight would take off from the Akron-Canton Airport while I stared and stared from the unshaded concrete observation deck.
I was up until four-thirty in the morning, dragging my pen along the bridge of my nose, my arms sprawled across the desk in my room. Summer insects and a breeze came in through the screen.
The last thing I wanted was to sleep, to fail, to say goodbye.
I fell three pages short, but managed to write my final poem, “For Julie, No. 50,” before the sky started to get light outside.
I wonder if she still has it?
A block from downtown Bowling Green, I stopped at a 7-Eleven and bought a green, 60-page spiral notebook, a Pilot rollerball pen, a two-pound bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a six-pack of Coke.
Kids from the bars were heading home in twos and threes, sweaty, red-eyed and smiling, their teeth chattering in the early spring chill.
There was a line at Taco Bell, and the window booths at the Corner Grill were already full when I drove past.
Now, I thought, where to start?
I took a right onto Court Street and headed for the Wasteland.
Blue-white moonlight lay pale over the flat acres of cement along the railroad tracks. There were broken chunks of concrete and small piles of crumbled bricks casting short, sharp shadows on what was once the floor of a ketchup factory. Rusty umbilical cables crawled from dark, narrow stumps of pipe, and in the middle of the expanse stood a broken cement monolith about six feet high, covered in graffiti.
The Wasteland spread along the western edge of campus, between the railroad tracks and North Enterprise Street. It was a great place to sit and watch the trains go by on cold, sunny days in winter.
A black, spidery signal gantry arched over the tracks nearby. Sometimes I thought about what it would be like to climb it and wait for a train to rush under, holding onto the steel with white-gripped fingers, lying against the bars, feeling my rib cage crushed against them as the tornado rushed hotly below.
Our apartment from the summer of 1991 overlooked the Wasteland and a small set of storage garages beside it.
I parked my car under the streetlight that stood at the corner of the garages and got out, with a Coke, the Doritos, and my notebook.
There were L-shaped iron steps in the streetlight pole, the lowest about eye-level.
After two trips up the pole, one with the bag of chips clenched in my teeth and the can of Coke resting coldly against my belly inside my shirt, the other with the notebook and pen, I scrambled over to the side of the garage roof away from the street and sat.
A breeze stirred the leaves of an oak tree above me, and I opened the chips and the notebook, and running my eyes over the Wasteland.
I sat there, trying to remember a time when I crossed that expanse daily and knew every twisted stump of steel cable and time-darkened bit of iron plating.
The smell of cold concrete rose from the rubbled plain. There was always a strange beauty I found in the Wastelands, and when I walked it, I often imagined a journey through desolation, a lonely quest through a hostile, mysterious land. I wondered if there were tunnels below the ground, hinted at by a slightly askew steel plate held barely open by a rust-knobbed bolt. I wondered if my ear at the dark opening would catch the far-off dripping echoes of great unknowns, or merely be brushed by hidden weeds growing from a shallow, gravel-filled crack.
Brushing the Cool Ranch powder from my fingertips, I began to write.
Kallie, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, Oballobieomokay,
I found myself back in Bowling Green tonight, a place where we once breathed and walked. There’s a lot here that’s different, now that you and Linc and me and all the others have passed through, like college kids do.
And yet, when I saw the kids tonight, at the bars, downtown under the lights, walking across campus, I realized that somehow, an awful lot stays the same out here in the fields.
I haven’t seen you in awhile, so I thought I’d write you this present, just wandering our old haunts and sharing my trip with you.
First stop: The Wasteland
I am sitting on the roof of the garages across from the Murray Street apartment. Remember the night we climbed up here? Linc had some friends over, and I had wandered over to your house – where else WOULD I go, Kallie? – and we watched the end of that terrible movie “Men at Work.” Then we wound up walking and talking all the way back over here, across the Wasteland, and we noticed that this light pole by the garages had these convenient pegs on it, so we climbed up here and watched the lights go on and off in the rooms of the Offenhauer Towers, wondering about the people up there.
I don’t know if you remember, but there was a guy in a red shirt, and we very clearly saw him pull open his curtain and slap something on the window, and I swear, we thought it was a banana peel.
We also saw the northern lights here, remember?
I can’t remember what we were doing, but outside my apartment one night, we happened to look up and see these shifting green lights in the sky, and it was just amazing! Especially now, when I think how weird it was, not only to see them, but thinking that this had to be May or June, and that’s just bizarre. You ran inside to call your Mom and Dad to ask if they could see them over Bryan, and we got Linc to run out with us to the middle of the Wasteland, and the three of us climbed that big cement block in the middle and were just mesmerized by the emerald-black sky and the stars.
I’ve seen the northern lights three times in my life.
The first was a deep red display over Hartville during my senior year of high school, while I was out walking with Julie. She was afraid, she was telling me at the time, of falling in love with me and then having to go back to Germany. My argument – namely, that you don’t ignore your feelings just to spare them later – was strengthened by the waves of scarlet and white that silently formed overhead in a great, encompassing band.
The second time was during my freshman year at BG, walking alone across campus one night. I was looking up at the Jerome Library, and from behind the highest orange bricks I noticed a green shadow so faint I thought it was a retinal remnant from the streetlamps shining in the corner of my vision. When I got to the space between the quads, where Peregrine Pond shone still under the stars, I made out the faintest aurora low in the sky, dark green, stretching like tentacles waving underwater.
And that summer, with Linc and Kallie.
Maybe not so coincidentally, three pivotal times in my life. I don’t know – maybe not “pivotal,” but certainly wide-eyed, gasping, swollen-sea moments just crackling with possibility. Sure, I’m attaching the importance in hindsight, but still, there it is.
I’ve thought so much about that summer when Linc and I stayed in the Murray Street apartment, and sitting here, now, I’m just overwhelmed, immersed in the air and the wind and the sky, you know? Was it really only three years ago? Everything I loved about that summer is running warm in my blood right now.
And I’ve got Doritos!
You lived in that house over on Wooster, so I don’t know how often you crossed the Wasteland, but I sit here staring across it, and even though it’s been years, my feet remember how it was to walk here every day. It’s as familiar as the wooden bench on the front porch of the house where I grew up.
I can see over to that big cement ring where you took Linc and me once, remember? About five feet high, over right next to the tracks?
Tell you what I think forever is…
You and Linc and me were over there one night, and you were showing us how if you passed through a narrow gap and stood in the very center of the ring and spoke or sang or yelled, you got this really neat echo from all sides that seemed to come from right out of your head where it began. So the three of us were standing there singing and talking, all back-to-back in the center, listening to these echoes in our skulls.
Linc and I climbed the wall and begin pacing towards each other around the circle. Not goose-stepping, but not ambling either. Just a measured pace, like slow ticking hands on a great deep clock, carefully but precisely noting our footing, just walking and walking in silence.
And you began to sing. From the center of the ring, your voice echoing up and out over the wall, skyward. I don’t even remember what you sang, but I can hear you in the July air, your song circling in the gathering dew of night, in time with the metronome padding of four sneakers on the wall.
When Linc and I met, and our paths crossed, our eyes hardly met as we somehow navigated around each other – that wall was only a foot or so wide, so I still don’t know how we managed – without missing a tick or tock.
In real life, sure, eventually you stopped singing, and Linc and I hopped down from the wall, and we all headed back to the yellow glow of our apartment, laughing.
But forever? Forever is the measurement of that broken ring clock, footstep seconds, a heartbeat song, and three kids with a summer night falling among the timeless fields and immeasurable stars above Ohio.
I munched a few more chips and gazed over at that circle, wondering what I might hear if I stood there tonight, in this time already gone, somehow delivered back to me.
I half-turned to look at the apartment building where Linc and I had lived. It was still ugly: a two-story cinderblock cube, painted brown, with a cracked, square chimney running up one side, and a barely sloping roof.
Inside, a gray staircase led up to our front door and into the kitchen. The place had two bedrooms, – pale yellow and sky blue – a living room, a kitchen, and a pink bathroom. All the doorways were crooked, and most of the narrow, dirt-streaked windows had to be propped open with wooden spoons. A single air conditioner effectively cooled the one chair in the living room sitting underneath it.
The girls we had sublet it from for the summer were coming back in the fall, so they left the furniture there: two couches, lamps, and a brown chair with the bottom falling out of it in the living room, box springs and mattresses, without bed frames, and a wobbling trio of a kitchen table and two chairs.
We had loved it from the second we walked in.
Summer mornings, the kitchen would be bright, the sun glaring off the Wasteland’s lake of cement, and I’d sit at the table with a bowl of cereal in the warm breeze from the window, watching the tree across the street.
The boxy rooms held onto the hot afternoons, and we’d sprawl on the couches for naps until evening began to cool the place with sparse cross-breezes.
In the stairwell that baked dust and cobwebs, we plastered posters from video stores and promotions for rock bands that Linc would bring back from the radio station. We strung an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade advertising banner across the living room wall next to an immense green Roger Waters: Radio KAOS subway poster. Above the nine-inch black and white TV I brought to the apartment, we tacked posters from the original Star Wars trilogy.
A flea-market sculpture I’d bought for five bucks sat above the air conditioner, a monkey on a pile of books pondering a human skull that we named The Icon of Jebediah. (It’s the same one shown on the back of that Van Halen album OU812, but I didn’t know that until a long time after I bought it. The statue, not the album.)
I remember sitting on one of the couches in the afternoon as the sun would set over downtown. All you could see from our west-facing windows was a double-rutted narrow alley accessed by dusty gravel backyard driveways. There was a patch of bubbly tar that got soft in the sun on the edge of the alley tracks, below the window. And as the sun went down, a small piece of glass stuck in that blacktop would catch the orange rays and glimmer faintly for awhile, like a star above a summer haze.
Beside the TV table, we put my stereo and a couple of wooden boxes of CDs. Since Linc was WBGU’s metal director, he’d get free music mailed to him by the carton. That summer, he gave me an advance copy of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He also brought home the promo CD of “Alive” by Pearl Jam.
I’d get home late at night from working at McDonald’s and be all wound up with no place to go, and I’d crank the volume up and just thrash and jump and wail myself around the living room, bouncing on the couches and air guitaring badly.
That was the first time I ever felt like I had left home, you know? Did you feel that way, that summer?
Before Linc and I moved into the apartment, I went home for two weeks just after school let out. I wish I could remember every second, every breath of those weeks. They were the last I truly lived in the house on Whitmer. I mean, I’d only been away at school for two years, and the summer after my freshman year I’d gone back home, leaving only for the month of July when I visited Julie in Germany.
Does it break your heart ever, to visit Bryan and sit in your old room with the windows open, listening to the insect songs at night?
I think about that summer, and you, and Linc and me, and sometimes it seems like a snapshot of a chess game. All the pieces have their spots, but depending on whose point of view you take, the board looks different: Some things are hidden behind others, some seem closer, and no one can see all the moves that brought them there, but the memory of their motion still hums like an undercurrent.
Ugh, that sounds so goofy, but it’s really a strange, strange night, and even though you’re not here – and I couldn’t explain it if you were anyway – it is somehow important that these things are saved.
Remember Fuzzy, the ring, in my glass? And the flattened pennies?
That’s what this notebook is full of.
Here’s another one: the FBI paid us a visit one Monday morning while I was getting ready for my shift at WBGU.
I’m in the living room, sifting through a pile of CDs to take to the station, and there’s a knock at the screen door..
So Linc gets up from the kitchen table and lumbers down, still carrying his bowl of cereal, and I hear him talking to someone, but their voices aren’t getting closer, so I know it’s not someone coming in to see us.
Linc comes back up, sets his bowl on the table, and says, “Josh. The FBI’s here. I want you to check out this guy’s ID, and see if you think it’s real.”
“ Huh?” I was already up and heading to the stairs to see.
So there’s this guy – he probably wasn’t much older then than we are now, late twenties, tops – in a dark blue suit and tie and sunglasses on our dirty little stoop in the hot morning sun, and he asks me if we’ve ever gotten any mail for Maria Gonzalez, or something like that.
“ Could you show him your ID?” Linc interrupts the guy and points at me.
Well, it said FBI in big, blue letters, and had the name JOHN TAYLOR ADDIS at the bottom, and it looked as real as any FBI tag I’d ever seen, which was none, of course, so I just nodded in approval, like a bouncer carding somebody.
We never had gotten mail for any Gonzalez, so he just left. Weird.
I don’t remember moving into that apartment, or moving out. We were there for barely four months. Years later, I wonder at the speed of time’s passage, and yet I think about those scant summer weeks and I think, my God, it was forever. I remember the night we saw an ad in the BG News, and Linc and I went over to check the place out, and we were just so excited about moving in for the summer, but I don’t remember actually arriving or leaving.
Know what? I’m going to close up the Doritos, climb down, and go stand in the middle of that ring.
And I will imagine that you will know I am there.
With the blue-white glare of the streetlight at my back, my shadow raced long and silent ahead of me over the Wasteland as I walked toward the dark cement ring.
I jammed my hands into my jeans pockets and snapped my arms tight against my side to keep them from shaking, because I believe in ghosts and thieves, and the shadows they frequent.
I thought I saw a flickering slide of motion from a black pile of debris to my left, forced my eyes to focus on the circle’s empty center, rammed my feet forward against the urge to turn and run.
A moment of gooseflesh horror ran chill water from my scalp to the base of my neck. Mostly, these things come from my own imagination and the corner shadows, but something passed over me then, and as I felt my skin tighten, I looked around at the ring glowing white in the moonlight.
I stepped on a pebble as I reached the midpoint, and the small snap-crunch beneath my foot pinched itself as a sound in the middle of my own head, magnified into the crash and explosion of a train, and in that second I heard a distant whistle, and I jumped.
Blood thrummed and buzzed in my ears, then subsided.
The tension and fear broke, and were gone, but I didn’t stay any longer.
Campus was a short block east, so I wandered that way. Passing the Offenhauer towers, I found myself suddenly drawn into the past’s tide as the bricks and sidewalks and windows of campus assaulted me silently, each bit of gravel, each wavering orange streetlamp, each brown-and-white campus building sign triggering sense recalls and associations.
I walked over toward the Physical Science building, where the planetarium was, and thought about the roof of Overman Hall.
Linc had bought a 3-pack of rubber balls somewhere that summer – the kind with that bitter, plasticky smell and an outer layer that cracked like a gumball shell after a few hours use. One afternoon, I went walking barefoot, bouncing one of these balls.
During summer semester, the campus felt strange, especially in the quiet afternoon hours.
I stopped alongside the Math/Science Building and started bouncing the ball off the four-story expanse of orange brick.
Bit by bit, I began throwing the ball a little harder, changing the angle slightly, stepping a few feet backwards with each throw to catch the ball on the return as it got closer and closer to the rooftop of Overman Hall, behind me. Of course I knew exactly what I was doing, even if I was trying to make it look and maybe even feel like an accident, and I tried to seem surprised when the ball finally soared back over my head and onto the Overman roof.
There’s a glass-enclosed hallway that connects Overman to the newer wing of the Physical Sciences Building. The steps leading up to the back door of Overman meet the building at the same junction as this hallway, and I noticed that it would be relatively easy to stand on the railing beside the steps, and with a bit of a reach and a quick pull-up, I could be on top of the glass hallway, and then it would be another step up to the first level of the roof.
I spent more time being paranoid about getting caught than it actually took me to get up there, find the ball and climb back down.
In the moment after I levered my upper body onto the roof and yanked my feet up behind me, I just looked around, and it was weird, because here in the middle of the campus where I’d lived for almost two years was a landscape that was alien to me. I was still on top of the walkway between the two buildings, and anybody passing by would have easily noticed me, so I made for the metal ladder I saw disappearing over the roof of Overman Hall, another six feet or so above me.
The roof was covered in chunky white gravel, and there were dozens of blocky air ducts, heat vents, chimneys and things that looked like small brick sheds with half-size doors in the sides spread out everywhere. And because I wasn’t wearing shoes, I was thankful for the network of paths laid out in flat cement squares across the area. It felt odd, like I was in an abandoned city on another planet, and I fought off an urge to wander around and explore.
I found the ball after couple minutes, then went back to the walkway and climbed down.
Kallie told me once she had a similar experience in the new wing of the building over by Administration: On a whim, she tested the door at the very top of a triangular stairwell, above the third floor landing. To her surprise, it opened, and she found herself wandering alone on the rooftop.
I’m sitting on that little ledge that runs around the planetarium dome – it’s a pretty clear night, and when I lean back against the curve of the cement and look up, I can see a swath of the Milky Way like a bridge between the dark rooftops.
Here’s a cool thought: I’m between the heavens. There’s the sky above, and beneath me, through the roof of the planetarium, a second sky.
The cement ring at the Wasteland was pretty freaky – it was still cool, but when you go there alone, especially at night, it can give you the willies. Remind me to tell you about it sometime.
Anyway, I also thought of you on the way over here, when I crossed the train tracks.
I put my hand on one cold rail and looked to the north, where it curved away and led out of town. A ways up there, I knew, out past the mall and the Wood County airport, the tracks crossed a small creek, and there was actually a tiny trestle maybe 20 feet across. I rode my bike out there once and saw it from the roadside, and waited for a train to pass. When one finally came, I crouched under the rails and looked up through the ties, catching black dirt and rust in my face as the train roared overhead.
I was going to try and write to you from the roof of Overman Hall, but you know what? There’s a lot more people here than there were in the summertime, and frankly, since I’ve graduated, I can’t fall back on the “hey-I’m-just-a-college-kid-what-do-you-expect” defense if I get caught wandering up there.
Between the heavens will just have to suffice, Oballobieomokay!
Here’s something weird that I found out after —
I almost wrote: you died.
Strange, knowing I was in the time before her death, still thinking of her in the way I’d grown used to, writing to her like I did so much in my journal after her funeral.
I wanted to tell her an odd little story about a connection we shared, unknowingly, during our freshman year, before we met. Jen Carmen shared it with me one night when she visited me in Florida the summer after Kallie was killed.
I scribbled out the last word, after , and continued.
Here’s something weird that I found out from Jen Carmen awhile back: You remember Jen? With the short, red hair, my best friend during my freshman year? Well, she and I were talking, about BG, and she mentioned that during our first winter at school, she had gotten really sick, and had a sore throat that was just on fire.
So this girl who’d never even met Jen, but knew her roommate Laura, braved the wind and the snow and walked the length of campus to get Jen some ice cream for her throat, and, of course, that was you.
And so, in a tiny sense, we almost knew each other a year early.
I don’t know, it’s a silly thing to think of, maybe, but would we have been different people?
We would just have been beginning our first year away from home. I wouldn’t have known Linc yet, or performed onstage during the freshman production, or sat with a girl named Karrie and a basket of Oreos at the edge of the pond behind the student rec center.
How would you have been different?
All this stuff, all these bits and pieces, they matter, you know? Yes, I really believe that, and yes, it’s the sort of babbling you have to put up with in this notebook, so ha, ha.
Hey, I’ve got an idea.
Let’s go see Rocinante and Bucephalus.
I hopped down from the planetarium ledge and crossed campus towards the central lawn.
Next: Chapter 5 – And We Danced
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