Crossing Decembers: Chapter 5 – And We Danced
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
Chapter 5 – And We Danced
There were two statues of horses flanking the Great Seal of BGSU. On warm afternoons they’d sweat an odor of hot copper.
During my freshman year I’d named them Rocinante and Bucephalus after the steeds of Don Quixote and Baron Munchausen.
Passing MacDonald Quad, the all-girls dorm, I caught the yellow glow of the front desk light through a glass entrance door. One semester, I had two classes about an hour apart, and the buildings in which they were held were fairly close to each other, although almost all the way across campus from my own room.
Consequently, I took to spending the time between them lying on a couch in the MacDonald lobby, a thirty-second walk from both classes. Once, when I was lying there with my eyes shut, head propped on my bookbag as a pillow, I heard one girl whisper to another, “That guy sleeps there every day – I think he’s homeless.”
Anyway, on the nicer days I’d flop out on the grass near the horses and let the sun heat up my eyelids while I napped in the shadow of the beasts.
The Great Seal of the university was set in brass on a pedestal at the confluence of about five sidewalks crossing the lawn.
Sophomores and juniors giving tours to prospective students always granted extraordinary power to the seal. They’d speak with bubbly reverence about the legend that if you stood on the seal and kissed someone at midnight, you were destined to marry.
Or they’d note with a whisper while leading tour groups toward it, “Look how everyone passes the seal on the right – passing it on the left brings bad luck, usually in the form of failed tests.”
Kallie and I, we made other plans, one night, after we saw a showing of “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” in the Lillian Gish Theater.
It was right around midnight, and there was an ice-shaving of crescent moon up near the top of the Admin building.
“ Check it out,” I said, nodding skyward.
“ Magic,” she replied. “Look, you can see it in the horses’ eyes.”
She pointed ahead to Rocinante and Bucephalus, and she was right – in each dark, smooth orb, the moon was thumbnailed in reverse.
“ Did you come here for one of those tours when you were applying to college?” I asked.
“ Yeah, why?”
“ They feed you all that goofy stuff about the power,” I lowered my voice to a wizard’s growl, crooked my fingers and raised my arms, “of the Great Seal?”
“ Ah, yes, yessssss,” she answered like a gypsy, swaying her hands before her eyes.
We stopped and looked down at the seal.
“ You know what would be funny?” she asked, looking sideways at me. “Would be to come out here and do some sort of silly fake sacrificial ritual – you know, have you lie on the seal with a textbook on your chest, and we would put candles around you and I’d sing the BG fight song backwards or something. Can you imagine the looks we’d get?”
“ To the great gods of knowledge, we deliver the soul of Josh,” I intoned, laughing.
“ Do you remember the bit about standing on the seal at the stroke of midnight, and kissing the person you were destined for?” She wrinkled her freckled nose and grinned while she asked it.
“ Yeah.” I half-shrugged and shook my head lightly, chuckling. “You’d think there’d be a line for this sort of thing,” I added, gazing across the empty lawn.
“ What time is it?”
I looked at my watch, felt a tickling in my gut. “About three after.”
In her eyes, I saw the crescent moon.
“ Three minutes,” she said, with a tight smile and a mock sad shake of her head as a breeze stirred her hair. “I guess we’ll just never know.”
Well, they’re still here. So’s the seal.
You know, I swear, it looks like there are tiny puddles of candle wax hardened around it…
Okay, so I made that up. But – sacrilege! I’m sitting on the thing right now. Why, I’m not sure exactly, but like the planetarium, it just seemed appropriate.
Here’s a memory to share with you from that summer: I was out walking one afternoon, and stopped by your house – that green one over on Crum and Wooster.
You were on a lawn chair on the back porch, that small concrete stoop, supposedly studying.
I couldn’t even tell you what we talked about, but I know you made me a glass of iced tea, and we lounged away a lazy hour or so just hanging out.
That’s one of those perfect memories of what that summer was, you know?
Of course, I remembered more than that.
I had come around the back of the house to knock on the door, and Kallie was lying there suntanning in a modest two-piece bathing suit.
It was almost a shock to me that she didn’t have a model’s body. I mean, she was pretty petite, but I happened to see that she had just the tiniest tummy bulge right above the top of her bathing suit bottom. We sat there in the sun, drinking iced tea, and the freckles on her nose danced when she squinted at me in the bright afternoon.
Do you remember the day you came in and did the radio show with me? (I just happened to look up and see the blinking red light of the WBGU transmitter on top of the Admin building, and I thought of my noon-to-three shift on the air, Mondays.)
I had a huge crush on this red-haired girl that did a show right after mine. Her name was Anne, and she and her best friend Amy had the Monday three-to-six slot. We actually wound up hanging out that summer because Linc and Amy hooked up.
After signing off one afternoon, I asked the girls to come over for macaroni and cheese (spare no expense at Chez Josh, eh?) and much to my surprise they did. For some reason, Linc wasn’t there, but when he came home, he could hardly believe they had come over.
Not long after that, he started dating Amy.
I think Anne really just looked at me as someone to talk to during Linc and Amy’s dates.
Seriously, we were like chaperones. The four of us walked over to the city park one night, Linc and Amy hand in hand, and Anne and I tagging along behind like kid siblings.
We were sitting on the swings, Anne and me, and I must have made some remark about being a little kid, and she got kind of uneasily quiet, and said something along the lines of “I didn’t have that kind of childhood.” I didn’t push it, and she never mentioned it again.
There was this one really awkward time when Anne and Amy were over, and Linc lit all these candles in the living room, turned out the lights, and put Peter Gabriel’s “Passion” on the stereo. For what seemed like years, Linc and Amy sat on the couch, their eyes just locked into each other’s, while I sat on the floor, and Anne sat in the chair by the air conditioner.
I remember my eyes trying so hard not to rest on anything, and watching the flickering shadows on the walls, the melting candle wax, the sky and the tree branches outside the window. When I’d glance at Anne, I’d see her doing the same thing.
Finally, without a word, Linc and Amy got up and went to his bedroom and closed the door, and there was just this tangible relief.
Anne and I wound up playing cards on my bed and telling stupid jokes (How many surrealist artists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: The fish!).
She was wearing a dark green men’s button-down shirt and a tie that I used to have that looked like a rainbow trout. (She had put it on to prove that she knew how to knot a necktie.)
In that moment, I felt close to her, and her laughter was genuine.
Do you ever wonder where people disappear to?
I thought about that for a minute and looked past the statues to the glass doors of West Hall, where the WBGU studio was.
There was a newspaper wedged in the doorframe for the poor saps who had to come in for the overnight shifts. I knew this from experience: Linc and I had run a three-to-seven a.m. show during our first radio stint.
While I just liked being on the air a couple hours a week, Linc took over as the WBGU heavy metal music director.
Essentially, this meant he’d get boxes of free new CD’s sent to him every couple days, and free tickets to local shows from bands trying to get noticed.
That summer, Linc drove to Toledo to see a band performing at a bar up there called Frankie’s. He’d arranged for a pre-show interview as well, and came home with an autograph for me and a good interview tape for his show. The group was the Smashing Pumpkins, and while I don’t think they ever did another album as good as their first, they did hit it really big a few years later.
Pretty weird, though: the lead singer, Billy Corgan, signed a WBGU business card for me, “To Josh, sorry about your father.” At the time, I wrote it off as just odd behavior, but now and then I think about it and how Dad died about two years later.
Another cool thing was that a guitarist named Chuck Treece visited Linc that summer as sort of a promotional thing.
He had this instrumental called “Violin” that I played on the air all the time.
I remember we got all excited when the arrangements were made, and we left to go pick him up at the Greyhound station in Toledo. The guy only brought his backpack and a couple of posters to sign, and asked if it was OK if he just stayed at our place that night. We drove through a Wendy’s for dinner on the way back to BG.
Linc interviewed him on the air that night, and he recorded a promo for my show, too, which I still think I have on tape somewhere.
I also remember we went over to somebody’s house for awhile that night, hung out, and then the three of us went over to the fountain in front of the BG administration building and messed with it, making the water shoot higher by plugging up some of the pipes with our feet.
Somewhere along the way, Chuck got thirsty and we bought a jug of orange juice from the 7-Eleven on Wooster Street.
I’ve looked up his name a few times in record stores, and even seen his CD in a couple racks, but I don’t know if he ever made any more albums.
Now I’m sitting on the loading dock of West Hall, looking over toward the smokestack at the power plant.
I remember one night, walking on the train tracks behind there, from Wooster Street all the way to the Wasteland, trying to see if I could go the whole way just balancing on the rails. I had to hop from rail to rail once or twice, but I made it without touching the ground.
And remember the morning I parked my car here that summer, in this faculty-permit-only lot, when I raced back from Grosse Ile in about 45 minutes because I had a class to get to? Not only did I not go home to shower or comb my hair or anything, I took my Ethics of Journalism notes that morning on the back of a yellow oil change receipt that I dug out of my glove compartment.
Kallie visited her grandmother in Grosse Ile, Michigan every couple weeks that summer, and a few times, she called to see if I wanted to come up and hang out. She liked to show me the places where she’d been as a little kid: the ice cream stand out by the island’s small airfield, a park with a high, arching bridge, and a library by the Detroit River.
Twice I stayed up there overnight, sleeping out on the living room couch. Kallie’s grandma lived along a canal, and the back windows that opened up to a small yard sloping down to the wooded edge of the water. Insect sounds filled the nights, and occasionally, I’d hear a small boat engine idling past, with a familiar comfort like hearing your neighbor’s car pull into the driveway.
“In a very weird way, the air here reminds me of the place I grew up,” I told her once.
It was after dusk, and the streetlights were coming on as we walked through the neighborhood.
“ I mean, it’s completely different, but there’s just this sweet, distinctive taste to the air – it comes from the river, I think,” I continued. “You spent a lot of time here as a kid, do you know what I mean?”
“ Yeah, I do,” Kallie said, craning her neck and inhaling. She was looking up through the tree branches at the stars. “It’s…faraway. Someplace far-off but kind of familiar.”
I nodded and said, “I grew up on a little dead-end street that’s surrounded by fields and woods, and it comes from Ohio summer grass and cornfields and forest shade, and when I go back there, to Whitmer Avenue, it’s – well, it’s just really kind of heartbreaking, you know?”
She stopped walking and looked around the street. The blacktop was still cooling from an afternoon baking, and we were standing in the middle of the road.
“ I’m pretty sure I do,” she replied.
I tried to explain again.
“ It’s like it’s the air of the best place at the best time, and summer vacation and staying out late playing in the yard, and lightning bugs,” I rattled. “And with it comes that sadness of knowing that part of you is gone forever, but at the same time, you love that it’s in your blood forever.” I was staring into the darkness behind a small brick house, where a single window flickered with the blue glow of a television.
Anyone else watching Kallie at that moment might have thought she was just staring into space, slowly turning her head, rolling a thought over and over.
But somehow, I knew what she was seeing – herself, younger, tennis shoes pounding up the street past dark, smelling like mosquito spray, her breath coming in sweaty, huffing gulps while she hollered “Ready or not, you guys, here I come!” And she was hearing wind high in the trees and a skittering and whishing of footsteps and other breaths desperately held.
“ You used to play hide-and-seek out here, didn’t you?” I ventured.
“ It was awesome,” she replied. “All these backyards and no fences, lots of trees and all these kids I only knew from visiting Grandma’s, but in summer it was hide-and-seek with ’em all, night after night.”
“ It was always Jailbreak on my street,” I answered. “Basically, hide-and-seek, except if you got caught, you sat on the porch until someone broke you out, and if you got caught three times you were it. We had this huge bush at the front corner of the house, and it was all prickly. We kept the hose underneath it, so there was sort of this little cave, and I’d hide right there, maybe ten feet from the porch, and I’d just break people out every time someone got caught. I can close my eyes right this second and imagine that I can smell that bush – it was kind of piny.”
“ Do you ever wonder,” she asked, looking up at the stars, “if you could talk to yourself across time?”
I had the best time when I used to visit you at your Grandma’s. Do you know that’s where I first got hooked on W.P. Kinsella’s books about baseball and magic? You and I were sitting in the den – I think that’s what that little green room up at the front corner of the house was – you know, the one with the funny lamp – and I remember picking “Shoeless Joe” off the bookshelf to read that night, sleeping out on the couch.
Man, I did a lot of reading that summer. It started off with the one class I was taking – we read ten books and wrote ten essays in six weeks. Let’s see, we read “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston, and James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” (which has a great story about a kid at a flea market/bazaar place), and…crap, I can’t remember.
I know I read a bunch of stuff on my own, too, because I got myself a library card from the Wood County Public Library. “Noonan: A novel about baseball, ESP, and time warps,” and “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” were two of the ones I checked out. Both of those are sort of kids books, but I remembered liking them so much that I decided to reread them.
This is insane, isn’t it? But somehow, I think you know what it means to save all these things.
You know what sounds good right now? A beer. Something real cheap, but without being gross. Linc and I went through a few cases of Keystone Light that summer. I don’t even know if they make the stuff anymore.
One night, we were planning on going out, I think, and we sat down at the kitchen table and decided to chug beers.
Believe it or not, it was the first time I’d even sat and tried to just guzzle a beer. Linc, too.
So we got these big, plastic Pepsi cups from the cupboard and filled them with beer, and because we were heading downtown, we tucked dishrags into our T-shirt collars in case we slopped.
And we raced.
Oh my God, Kallie, it was nuts, just trying to suck down this monster cup of beer – foul-tasting stuff – watching Linc across the table, his face just covered by a stupid Pepsi cup and a dishtowel over his chest.
And then we were slamming down our empty cups and letting out these ungodly burps, and my stomach was just washing back and forth inside me. Ugh.
I would say you had to be there, but it’s probably good for all that you weren’t.
Then again, three words: Good Tymes. Uptown.
It was the one time that summer I think that you and I actually got together and went downtown to go dancing, remember?
I know we went to Good Tymes first, that dark little bar right next to the Sunoco, because we were both a few months shy of 21 and nobody ever got carded there.
Sidenote: I just remembered that Thom from the radio station was working the door that night – it was odd because I had gone to high school with him, and yet somehow you knew him, too, and that weasel gave you an “Over 21” stamp without a second thought, then turned around and low-stamped me!
The bar was serving beer in these humongous bright-colored cups shaped like garbage cans, and we just started in on a couple.
I know we weren’t there very long – it really was just everybody’s sort of warm-up bar, with the cheapest beer and dirty walls covered in black paint, and I swear, someone’s old sofa along one wall and a picnic table in front of the speakers stacked in the corner.
Good Tymes, indeed.
So then we went to Uptown to do some dancing, and you had this fake ID that you’d gotten in Florida, so you got high-stamped again. You bought me, to this day, the only whiskey sour I’ve ever had. And we were sitting there at the bar, sucking down these drinks you kept buying, and I made some comment about a girl I had once seen tie a maraschino cherry stem in a knot with her tongue.
(What can I say? You kept buying me alcohol – you want intelligent conversation after beer from a mini trash can?)
Before I had even completed that thought, you gave that ornery grin of yours, and showed me the knotted cherry stem in your teeth.
I kept that damned thing for years, Oballobieomokay, with the yellow Fuzzy ring and the flattened pennies, in that glass of mine.
And we danced. (Yes, that’s a blatant Hooters reference solely for your benefit.)
Truth: I am certain I look like an idiot when I dance.
Truth: That night, I didn’t care.
You had on a short, white dress with big black polka-dots on it, and halfway through the night, I gave you the crystal that I was wearing around my neck because it kept smacking me in the head while I bounced around.
And, as many times as I had been to Uptown, the DJ never, ever, not once, fulfilled the only song request I ever made.
You, it took one trip to the disc jockey’s window above the dance floor (I clasped my hands and you used them as a step to reach up there) and within five minutes, my song was blaring, and we were flailing and jumping and howling and drunk, all energy and joy and life.
“ It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and I Feel Fine.”
Years later, I saw REM in concert, and wore that crystal, and when they finished up the show with “End of the World,” I smiled a head-splitting grin, fought tears, and swore I’d never let the song stop buzzing in the corners of my head.
Kallie and I walked back to the apartment around 2 a.m., half-deaf and still punchy, stinging the cool summer air with our own sweat-and-smoke pungency. She had driven to our place, and sitting in my room, on the corner of the bed, I told her it’d be okay to crash if she didn’t feel like she could drive home. God, I was later ashamed at how I practically begged her to spend the night, just to hold her and have the smell of her hair on the pillow the next day. Even to know that she was just there, on the other side of the bed, or even in my room, because I offered to sleep on the couch.
But without making me feel like an idiot, without pointing out that I was really being a big baby, she said no, she’d be fine, but thanks. And she never mentioned it again, no matter how many times we talked about what an awesome time we had that night.
There are times when remembering my blunt, stupid plea burns and itches because I never got to apologize for it.
And there are times I cry because I wish she had said yes.
You know, I had all but forgotten until this moment that I was a camp counselor for awhile that summer.
I spent six weeks as the Assistant Director of the North Baltimore Summer Recreation Program.
North Baltimore’s about 15 miles south of BG, straight down I-75. Through a friend of a friend thing, I snagged the job as a second income just after buying my saxophone.
This girl Stephanie was the girlfriend of Tony, who was WBGU’s Metal Director when Linc and I started on the radio. He and Linc became good friends when he was training Linc to take over his position.
Anyway, Stephanie was being paid $1500 to run this six-week day care program, and she was also budgeted $500 for an assistant – which turned out to be me.
So, five days a week for a month and a half, we got up at six in the morning and shared a ride to the North Baltimore Community Park for glorified babysitting from eight to one. Played a lot of dodge ball and kickball. Had a friend of Stephanie’s bring his electric guitar and play for the kids one day, took them by bus up to the BG student rec center on another occasion. Once, Stephanie needed the day off, and the kids led me on a bike ride to the rock quarry on the northwest side of town, and we threw stones from the weedy cliffs and watched them fall. I even got my picture in the North Baltimore paper once, standing next to the monkey bars while the kids climbed all over them.
One afternoon, another day I was working solo, (Angie went on vacation for a week, actually, I think. Did I get paid extra? Of course not. What a chump!) the mother of two of the girls was a little late in picking them up, but when she got there, she’d brought me two heaping paper plates of homemade lunch – barbecue beef and potato salad, and some baked beans, and a bottle of Coke, too.(A glass bottle, no less! Coke never tastes as good as it does from glass, and I hate that you can only get it now in those crappy little 8 oz. bottles. The people in the TV commercials are always still knocking it back from 16-ouncers, though – where do they get them? Bastards. Anyway…)
We hiked up the creek one day, the kids wading in the water and chasing newts and frogs and crayfish, climbing on exposed tree roots sticking out of the banks, hopping on stones.
The last day of the camp we had a huge water balloon war, and after the kids had all gone, Stephanie and I shared a couple beers in the park recreational building.
It was only six weeks, but it seemed like such a big chunk of that summer.
Sitting here, remembering that tiny town off the interstate, I think about all those kids, and that Mom who made me a lunch, and I think: I’ll never see any of them again. Weird.
I think I need to walk some more.
No, wait, you know what just came to mind? The day we went up to Put-In-Bay, and it was all gray and rainy and windy in the morning. I know you don’t need me to remind you of the details.
Sincerely, Josh the Towel-Boy.
The memory of that clouded sky descended and filled my vision, replaced in the next stomach-churning moment by Lake Erie’s grey, churning surface as the bow of the Put-In-Bay ferry alternately dove and rose in the waves.
Kallie and I were standing at the prow, side by side, arms outstretched and trying to maintain our balance.
“This is awesome!” she hollered, grabbing at my wrist as the boat pitched upward, throwing an ecstatic smile my way.
We were the only ones on deck, the other passengers sitting in the stuffy, glassed-in cabin area.
Before I could reply, I saw a wall of water and spray looming, the ferry crashing down into its heart, and even as I turned my back, I caught a glimpse of Kallie, for a half of a half of a second, still watching me, framed on all sides by the drenching mountain about to break itself over and around her, and smack me full-on in the back with a wet, cold shove.
I felt the boat rise once more, lifted my head to see her shivering, clothes and hair plastered to her body, her grin undying.
“Okay, inside!” she said, and we sloshed in our tennis shoes to the cabin, out of the reach of the wind and waves.
Half an hour later, we were pedaling a red tandem bike past the Put-In-Bay airfield and toward the town at the eastern edge of the island.
The breeze as we rode pulled goosebumps by the handful from our arms and necks. We were still soaked from the boat trip.
Thick clouds raced low past the tower of Perry’s Monument, creating the illusion that it was falling toward the lake.
When we reached town, we stopped in the first beach-house-boutique we came to. A middle-aged red-haired woman, her face wrinkled with sun and smile lines, stood behind a small counter.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “is there a laundromat around here?”
She looked at us, our sopping clothes clinging, our teeth chattering, and pointed back out the door. “Go up that road toward the airport, and there are some apartments off to the left. I think they have a laundry room there.”
The laundry room was where she said it would be, in a small building painted the same robin’s egg blue as the apartments. Inside, we saw it was connected by a narrow hall to the front office.
No washers or dryers were running, and the room was empty.
There was a stack of large white bath towels folded neatly on a counter, but no basket, hangers, or any other signs that someone would be coming back for them.
I walked to the front desk, pulled two limp, sodden dollar bills from my wallet, and asked the girl sitting there reading her magazine if she had change.
She hardly looked up as she handed me eight quarters.
I returned to the laundry room.
“Go ahead,” I whispered to Kallie. “I’ll stand here -” I leaned in the hallway, facing the front office area – “You can keep your own eyes on the windows. Grab a towel, and let’s get our clothes dried so we can go have lunch.”
“This is crazy,” she said, peering out the door at the back of the apartments, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
But she pulled her arms through the sleeves of her shirt, and I forced myself to turn back to the hallway and stare at the brown-orange carpet in the office.
“All right, your turn,” she hissed, suppressing a giggle. “Here.” She held out a towel.
I turned and took it as nonchalantly as I could, found myself entranced by the freckles on her small shoulders, the thin necklace around her neck that dipped towards the shallow gap between her breasts, tucked neatly behind the top of the white towel she now wore.
“Gee, maybe you’re right,” I mused with a smile, “this does seem a little insane. You know, I think my clothes are feeling drier already.” I patted myself down theatrically and stretched my arms wide. “Yeah, I think I’ll just wait.”
She grabbed another towel from the pile and threw it in my face.
So we spent the next half hour sitting on the washers, towel-clad, paranoid, and laughing our heads off at the whole thing. When our clothes were dry, we again took turns guarding the hallway, leaving the towels neatly folded and stacked on the counter again.
It was 3:35 a.m. when exhaustion caught up with me.
I rubbed my eyes and looked at the empty sidewalks, the dark signs at Myles’ Pizza Pub and Dairy Queen. I suddenly wanted nothing in the world more than a hot plateful of shredded hash browns slopped in ketchup, grizzled with salt, and a sweet cup of coffee, double sugar, double cream.
I felt in my pocket, pulled out a pair of crumpled dollar bills and hopped off the West Hall loading dock.
The Corner Grill would be open all night.
Next: Chapter 6 – Steering A Train
Click here for information on ordering the book in paperback or electronic editions through Amazon or Lulu.